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Catholic Vancouver Feb. 21, 2019

From goth to bikers, #MediaNuns reach multitudes

By Agnieszka Ruck

Media nuns Sister Carly Paula Arcella (second from left) and Sister Danielle Victoria Lussier discuss media strategy with members of the Archdiocese of Vancouver’s Communications Team. (Agnieszka Ruck photo)

The Daughters of St. Paul once lugged around suitcases of books, travelling door-to-door to offer encouragement, prayer, and little books about God to anyone willing to listen.

“There was nowhere these little nuns in black habits wouldn’t go. The factories. The construction yards. They would get let in and go person to person,” from New York to California, said Sister Danielle Victoria Lussier, FSP.

“They knew how to receive a person where they were, and the variety of people they encountered every day: from Wall Street to the shipping yards! They would go into mafia storefronts – and they would know it – and would walk up to them and offer them the word of God.”

Much has changed since. The Pauline sisters now wear blue, and they have stopped knocking on doors for their safety and because fewer people are at home to answer them.

Instead, they worked hard at expanding their publishing efforts, launching Pauline Books and Media locations across the U.S. and in Toronto. They embraced modern media streams, created social media accounts, started offering digital resources, and insisted women entering the congregation do so with their smartphones.

The congregation, now over 100 years old, seeks ways to evangelize in any modern method they can. Sister Lussier, for example, is a documentary filmmaker, photographer, and graphic designer who made her first vows in 2017.

“We are called to reach the masses,” she said. “It’s a new challenge, a new frontier: the evangelization of the ‘digital continent’ that Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II talked about.”

Sister Lussier and Sister Carly Paula Arcella connected with the Communications Team at the Archdiocese of Vancouver during an informal meeting Feb. 8. They said the sisters’ methods are always evolving, but never straying from their primary mission.

“In our community, we are constantly discerning,” said Sister Arcella. “We are called to take up the media, but how do we do that in a way that glorifies God and promotes the good?”

The sisters answer that call according to their talents; some write devotionals, books, or journals, offer online retreats, or teach media literacy based on Theology of the Body principles.

And they have been making waves. One of their most recent Lenten resources, a journal and devotional combo, sold out 900 copies in nine days. The books, titled Remember Your Death: Memento Mori, began as a series of Tweets by Sister Theresa Alethia Noble, FSP, who would contemplate a ceramic skull on her desk and share her daily meditations on death over Twitter.

After she turned those Tweets into a journal and a devotional, there was a strong response.

The books “have really hit a niche audience on Twitter,” said Sister Lussier. The edgy resource turned out to attract bikers, members of the goth subculture, and even a Catholic woman in her late 60s who told Sister Lussier it inspired her to make one of the best confessions of her life.

“This book, which we were aiming at millennials, was hitting this woman’s heart and is serving a need.”

The #MediaNuns often find it’s those personal encounters that spur on their creativity and lead to more books, e-books, and other resources. For example, the community’s Sister Kathryn James Hermes offers one-on-one spiritual direction, which led her to write Reclaim Regret in 2018, a book that also attracted a significant following and received high praise from psychologists and counsellors.

They have some fun, too. A video featuring Sister Arcella playing an air guitar while dozens of other Pauline sisters sing along to We Will Rock You during recreation time went viral after it was accidentally posted online by a not-quite-so-tech-savvy sister, she said. The shaky footage was later deleted, but not before copies of the joyful video were circulated widely online and viewed 26.5 million times.

But, Sister Arcella pointed out, heavy social media use is not all fun and games. “There are addictive natures to this thing. Part of our spirituality is making reparation for the evil, negative, and addictive things that happen on the media. It is a tool, and it could be used for great good or great evil.”

During their B.C. tour this February, Sisters Arcella and Lussier held book fairs at parishes in Surrey, Delta, Vancouver, and Burnaby, and visited a few elementary schools.

“We prayed with them, that everything they write, everything they draw, is for the glory of God, and for people who are lost or confused because of what they see or what they watch,” said Sister Arcella.

The Daughters of St. Paul were founded in Italy in 1915 and began producing their own media in the form of inexpensive catechisms early on.

The congregation expanded to the U.S. in 1932, and by the time co-foundress Mother Thecla Merlo died 33 years later, it had opened foundations in 22 countries.

Now, as the North American sisters discuss their future, they are seeking new ways to evangelize, create helpful Catholic resources, and offer that one-on-one personal interaction that was the mission of their suitcase-toting predecessors.

This spring, they plan to launch their first Canadian web store. 

Though they don’t have any convents on Canada's west coast, Daughters of St. Paul do make regular visits north of the border (and have two Canadian convents, one in Toronto and another in Montreal). Sisters Arcella and Lussier say they dream about establishing a permanent presence in Western Canada someday.

Sister Arcella tweets @SrPaulaFSP and Sister Lussier at @DaniellesHabit.