Social media opens windows to women religious communities and their charisms

In December, the Facebook page for the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, had more than 600,000 likes, meaning its daily feed of inspirational quotes, news stories and photos of events at the convent could appear in the newsfeeds of more than a half-million people around the world. By mid-April, the number of fans of the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based order was over 850,000.

The Facebook page for the Franciscan Sisters, T.O.R. of Penance of the Sorrowful Mother in Toronto, Ohio, also has a huge following, with over 360,000 likes. Most orders of women religious with Facebook pages have only a few thousand fans.

Communities — even contemplative and cloistered communities — are increasingly taking to social media as a form of outreach, helping them reach hundreds or even thousands of people they otherwise would never come in contact with. And it is some of the more conservative communities, the ones least likely to promote themselves through traditional channels, that have gained the most followers.

The Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious even has a smartphone app, complete with information about their communities, religious life itself and multi-media "Meet a Sister" features. (The app project was funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which also funds Global Sisters Report.)

Sr. Angela Szczawinska, the electronic media coordinator for the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth in Des Plaines, Illinois, said she has noticed that the communities with the most followers on Facebook are those like the Dominican Sisters of Mary and the T.O.R. Franciscans, where the pages are dominated by young sisters in habits.

Szczawinska is her community's first electronic media coordinator, a position created when the congregation expanded from having just a website to adding Facebook and YouTube in 2011.

"[Sisters] don't have so much exposure now because of our ministries. We used to work in many schools, and young people would see us," Szczawinska said. "When the age gap is getting wider between us and younger people, [religious life] becomes less attractive to them."

She takes care to fully represent the Sisters of the Holy Family, she said, which has both younger and older sisters and sisters in full habit, modified habits and without habits.

"We show the whole mix," she said. "We are showing the community as we truly are."

Women religious are also on social media because that's where potential candidates are. A recent study by Georgetown University's Center of Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) of 411 men and women who entered religious life in 2015 found that roughly one-third of them initially found their institution through online searches.

A study of the use of the Internet and social media by Catholic sisters is underway by A Nun's Life Ministry, which pioneered the use of technology and social media for women religious. The study, announced in January, will examine how women religious use these tools so their efforts and techniques can be shared. The study will be conducted by CARA and is funded by a grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

What's the secret to the high numbers of followers some communities have? For the Dominican Sisters of Mary, one could point to exposure: The order was featured on "Oprah" in 2010. But the community didn't join Facebook until November 2012.  

"I don't know, but everybody asks me that," said Franciscan T.O.R. Sr. Thérèse Marie Iglesias, the community's web coordinator. "You just don't follow the rules and do whatever you want? You do everything they say not to do?"

"They" in this case would be the experts on social media, who say that to gain fans and spread your message, you need to have a lot of interaction with them, responding to questions and comments. But Iglesias has time to only respond to a handful a day.

"I'm not a strategy-type person," Iglesias said. "I've never had a strategy. People don't like to hear that — they want to know how to do it."

Both the Dominican Sisters of Mary and the Franciscan Sisters, T.O.R. tend to post inspirational reflections, the daily Gospel readings, or photos of life in the convent, including special visitors or a newborn calf. Neither community has an Instagram or Twitter account, and both have only a small presence on YouTube.

When Iglesias accidentally posted a picture from the convent Christmas card of the sisters posing in a sort of nativity scene with a live cow and a statue of Jesus on a hay bale, the Facebook page "went crazy," she said. The photo was shared so many times that the number of likes on the Franciscan T.O.R. page doubled.

When a teenager in Slovakia posted a video to his blog of a sister ice skating in her habit, the 30 seconds of her leaps and spins went viral on social media. It turns out that Ursuline Sr. Maria Hudacekova was a former champion skater.

The teen, David Fico, later wrote in his blog: "I felt so . . . I don't even know how to describe that feeling. And what really what touched me the most was that they were all so happy. I could feel the happiness that shone from them. They appreciated the moment, ice skating around each other."

Like Hudacekova, the smiling sisters on the Franciscan T.O.R. and Dominican Sisters of Mary Facebook pages are all habited. Beyond the habit, there's another facet these popular sisters share: joy.

"I think the more we can communicate the beauty of the life and what it's like to be here, the better," Iglesias said. "We live with each other all the time, so we forget what it's like."

Molly Hazelton, co-director of National Catholic Sisters Week, said people are naturally curious about life inside a convent, and seeing the joy on the sisters' faces inspires them.

"I think that choosing that [consecrated] lifestyle is a radical choice in this day and age when we're bombarded with buying and capitalism. The choice to live a cloistered or more simple life is fascinating to a lot of people," Hazelton said. "That opportunity to peer inside and see inside the cloister and behind the grille, that's fascinating to people, and the social media aspect opens that up. It's saying, 'You may not be able to come into our motherhouse, but let us show you what our life is like.' " (National Catholic Sisters Week is funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.)

The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas have more than 50,000 fans on Facebook and more than 9,000 followers on Twitter, but they also have an advantage: Unlike, say, the Franciscans, which have different communities across the nation and each may have a separate Facebook page, all the Sisters of Mercy were combined into one institute in 1991.

It made sense then, said Sisters of Mercy Communications Director Sue Carroll, to combine all their social media efforts, as well, and about five years ago, the local Facebook pages were all merged. Now, their social media presence is overseen by two experts.

"It's really key to be here on these social media platforms," Carroll said. "It's nice that it's an opt-in — if they're on social media and interested, they can see it. It's not like a blast email."

The Facebook page of the Handmaids of the Precious Blood in New Market, Tennessee, has only 764 fans, but the fact that it is on Facebook at all is unusual: The community is cloistered and the sisters do not interact with the outside world.

"We cautiously began a website in 2010, merely 'pushing' information about our community out into the World Wide Web," the Handmaids' website says. "The foray into Facebook and Twitter, where we can receive feedback, has been undertaken with equal trepidation and care only recently in early 2015. For one, we realize the danger of the world getting into the cloister electronically. And secondly, we also realize and appreciate the question it raises: What are enclosed nuns doing on Facebook and Twitter anyway?"

The answer, they say, is that they recognize the need for modern evangelization, but also the need to protect their contemplative community. So their social media operation is handled by their lay communication director, Scott Maentz.

"With Scott, we have a layer of protection. He is like a guardian standing on the digital cloister wall protecting us from not only what may be harmful but from what is unnecessary in the enclosure," the website says. "The peace this helps to establish, so that we maintain the primacy of the spiritual, is priceless."

Eileen Dickerson, board chair of Communicators for Women Religious, said the broad reach of some congregations is simply because they are offering what so many people desperately want.

"There's much in popular culture that's shallow, and it leaves people feeling empty and unsatisfied. When people ask themselves, 'Who are the people with meaningful lives?' one answer is Catholic sisters," Dickerson said. "They're looking for a deeper and more meaningful life of service."

Social media also gives women religious a chance to share what they're doing in a way that doesn't feel like self-promotion, which most sisters are loathe to engage in.

"Catholic sisters are getting better and better at communicating. For decades, sisters did good and really didn't talk about it," Dickerson said. "I think the message of their purpose and their charism is getting out into the universe more than ever before, and people are attracted to the message and to them."

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. His email address is dstockman@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]

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