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St. Louis #MediaNuns hold fast to tradition while embracing social media

The Daughters of St. Paul have operated Pauline Books and Media, a small bookstore adjoining their convent in Crestwood, since the 1980s. But these days, the Roman Catholic sisters are reaching people far beyond St. Louis with their posts and videos on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram.

Using the hashtag #MediaNuns, they tweet friendly messages of inspiration:

“If you do nothing else today, remember that God loves you.”

“Wondering what happened on the Monday of Holy Week? Today Jesus cleansed the Temple. Haven’t we all wanted to overturn a money-changer’s table or two!”

Social media is just the newest tool the sisters have adopted to fulfill their mission of sharing the Gospel through forms of media, said Sister Mary Lea Hill, the superior of the St. Louis community.

“Because it's a way of connecting with people, and it is where most people are found,’’ she said. “Almost everybody has some connection with social media on one level or another.’’

Apostles on the Internet

The Daughters of St. Paul is an international congregation with 2,400 sisters working in 50 countries. The Rev. James Alberione founded the Daughters of St. Paul in Italy in 1915, during World War I, to be modern apostles using emerging forms of communication to spread The Word.

A century ago, that meant buying printing presses, with the sisters going door to door to deliver their publications. Through the years, the sisters have become adept at radio, television, film and digital media.

Social media is a new way of knocking on doors, Hill said.

She’s 71 and the superior of the community. Her Twitter handle is CrabbyMystic, and she has 1,500 followers, though she doesn’t post as frequently as some of the media nuns. On the colorful LED sign outside the store, there’s an image of Hill, wearing sunglasses and posing with her new book “The Church Rocks.”

Other images share verses from scripture or invite motorists driving past on Watson Road to stop by the chapel.

Sister An Mei and postulant Cecilia Cicone pray before eating breakfast in the convent of the Daughters of St. Paul in Crestwood.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Sister An Mei and postulant Cecilia Cicone pray before eating breakfast in the convent of the Daughters of St. Paul in Crestwood.

On a recent Wednesday, Sister Mary Joan Baldino, 89, unlocked the front doors of the shop at 10 a.m. sharp.

She rises before everyone else  to pray alone in the chapel for all the people she meets who come to the bookstore seeking solace or answers to their questions of faith. 

A book in the chapel is filled with handwritten prayer requests left by visitors.

“We never know the impression we make on them, you know,’’ Baldino said. “And our founder used to tell us, 'The good that you do, you'll never know. You might know something, but in heaven, you'll find much more than we ever know.’ ’’

The book center is geared toward Catholics, but people of other Christian faiths also stop by if they’re shopping for bibles and such, said Hill.

Spiritual music is piped into the brightly lit store, where books and videos are neatly organized by topic. There’s a life-size cardboard cutout of the pope that customers like to take selfies with — and a comfortable chair in the corner, next to a coffee maker. 

Sister Mary Lea Hill works in the Pauline Books and Media store on Watson Road in Crestwood.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Sister Mary Lea Hill works in the Pauline Books and Media store on Watson Road in Crestwood.

“A lot of people say they come because they like the atmosphere, because it's a peaceful kind of — almost a prayerful — place, even though we have a lot of fun,’’ Hill said. “And they like it also because we have a chapel. They can spend time praying along with browsing books.”

The sisters also hold events at the book center, such as movie nights and activities for children. And they take their books to area parishes.

“It doesn’t feel like we stepped out of the world”

Five professed sisters live in the convent, along with four postulants, all in their 20s. The postulants are in the early stages of joining the congregation — a period known as discernment.

Despite their new persona as #MediaNuns, the sisters are holding fast to their traditions. Every morning and evening, they gather in the chapel before the book center opens, and again after close. Most days, the sisters go to a neighboring parish for Mass, but on Wednesdays, a retired priest says the Mass in their chapel.

A Daughter of St. Paul works in the bookstore in Crestwood.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
A Daughter of St. Paul works in the bookstore in Crestwood.

The sisters all work daily shifts in the book center, Hill said.

The first task of the day for the postulants is to clean — which means keeping the spotless building spotless. Then they begin their studies.

On good-weather afternoons, the postulants might be found behind the convent playing a spirited game of basketball while in uniform: navy-blue skirts, white shirts and sweater vests.

Allison Gliot, 23, of Falls Church, Virginia, entered the postulancy program a year ago. She was introduced to the congregation by a Daughter of St. Paul who was in her classes at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

“I love that what we're trying to do is so relevant to the world today,’’ Gliot said. “Really, we're trying to reach out to people and give them Jesus, using the ways of communication that people of today use. It doesn't feel like we stepped out of the world or apart from it.”

Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Postulants of the Daughters of St. Paul play basketball after their classes have ended. The are, from left, Allison Gliot, Orianne Dyck, Cecilia Cicone and Monica Marsh.

Cecilia Cicone, 22, is a force on the basketball court. She’s from Delaware and tweets frequently about her life as a #MediaNun-in-training.

In a recent tweet, she shared a Lenten thought: “Went to have a quick breakfast this morning to realize we forgot to make coffee. Some days of Lent, you choose your penance. Other days, your penance is thrust upon you.”

Another tweet offered a personal revelation: "I've learned that wearing a sweater vest seems way cooler if you refer to it as "the armor of God."

“When we put on these really fashionable outfits, we are still totally ourselves,’’ Cicone said. “So I am still a normal 22-year-old. I like to do things that normal 22-year-olds like to do. I also have received an amazing amount of grace from God and know that I'm loved. I'm able to share that message with others.’’

Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.