Finding religious life through social media: A Nun's Life Ministry

From left, Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Maxine Kollasch, Benedictine Sr. Mary Luke Jones, Benedictine Sr. Heather Jean Foltz and Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Julie Vieira conduct a soundcheck for the Motherhouse Road Trip podcast at the Our Lady of Grace Benedictine Monastery in Beech Grove, Ind., on Nov. 14. (Dan Stockman)

Beech Grove, Indiana — Sr. Julie Vieira is showing off the portable sound studio they’ve brought – a collection of boxes with switches, buttons and flashing lights, computers, headphones, mics and a video camera, all connected by a tangle of wires.

“We do face some danger,” she deadpans. “But it’s usually electrical.”

Which is immediately followed by her equally deadpan partner, Sr. Maxine Kollasch, chiming in: “Followed by our most prayerful moments.”

Vieira and Kollasch, both Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters, are A Nun’s Life Ministry, aimed at sharing the joy of religious life with the world. And what better way to spread the word than to take it on the road?

“It’s the best adventure ever,” Vieira says. “It’s like a road trip in the best sense of the word.”

Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Julie Vieira shows off a box of spare plugs and adapters. When A Nun's Life Ministry began the Motherhouse Road Trip, they learned quickly to be prepared for anything. (Dan Stockman)

The trip part of the adventure is the Motherhouse Road Trip, a portable version of their “Ask Sister” podcast. Instead of sending it out from Toledo, Ohio, where A Nun's Life Ministry is based, they travel to a religious community and broadcast it live from there. The most recent location was the Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, Ind., home of the Sisters of Saint Benedict. The podcast was the 15th on-location they’ve done since the tour started in August 2013.

Both Kollasch and Vieira took their final vows in 2006, and started A Nun’s Life Ministry shortly after.

“We say it’s the best job in the world,” Vieira said. “We love religious life, and we love being sisters. And then we have a job talking to sisters.”

And since communities are so varied and the experiences sisters have can be so different, traveling just made sense.

“The idea is to go and have a conversation with religious women in the place where they live, where they minister, and give people a sense of what that feels like,” Vieira said. “To be with a community in their own space. It’s about how to take the living tradition of religious life and bring it up close and personal into people’s lives.”

The podcasts originally began in 2009, and like A Nun’s Life Ministry itself, quickly grew from there.

“Nun’s Life began with a blog in 2006,” Kollasch said, “and very soon people were engaging with comments, questions – questions about religious life, about faith. We realized there was something here, so we just began expanding the ministry and the forms of interaction. We launched into social media quickly.”

Vieira said it became clear that A Nun’s Life was meeting the needs of many more people than just those deciding whether to enter religious life.

“What people were longing for was how to apply the principles of religious life to their own lives, even if they’re not discerning,” she said.

The first time out on the road, however, was quite the exercise – literally: None of the equipment they had was really portable. And their hosts were not really sure what they were in for.

Four women in headsets at a table
From left, Benedictine Sr. Mary Luke Jones, Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Maxine Kollasch, Benedictine Sr. Heather Jean Foltz, and Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Julie Vieira record a podcast for A Nun's Life Ministry at the Our Lady of Grace Benedictine Monastery on a Motherhouse Road Trip. (Dan Stockman)

“We just called and said, ‘Do you want to do this?’” Vieira said. “They said ‘Why not? We don’t know what a podcast is, but we know that’s where we need to be.’”

The engagement with the audience begins far before the microphones go live: Thanks to A Nun’s Life’s Jane Aseltyne, even packing up the gear is put out on social media, from Twitter to Facebook to six-second looping videos on Vine.

“It’s really fun to do the social media part of the road trip,” Aseltyne said. “People love to see the fun side of religious life as well as the prayerful side.”

Once they arrive at the host community, they spend time with the sisters there and begin setting up their gear. Then it’s time to meet with the on-air guests and do a soundcheck.

The audio podcast is streamed live, along with video, and the audio can later be downloaded for listening on a computer, smartphone or tablet.

While Kollasch and Vieira run the audio portion, Aseltyne handles the live chatroom, which lets listeners and viewers ask questions and be part of the broadcast. People from around the world join the chatroom, and Vieira uses it at the start of the broadcast to get feedback on how the audio sounds and whether the video is streaming properly.

“It’s like magic when our community and the online community come together,” Vieira said. “It’s delightful to see the interaction.”

And someone must be listening: A Nun’s Life is closing in on 275,000 downloads of the podcasts they’ve produced.

“We know there’s a connection being made out there,” Kollasch said.

“People ask us if there are still vocations,” Vieira said. “Numbers like that tell us people are longing for what religious life has to offer and finding something in religious life that speaks to them.”

The Nun’s Life sisters have something to offer the communities they visit, too: Aseltyne gives tips on how communities can better use social media and engage people on Facebook and Twitter.

“A lot of congregations are open to using social media,” she said, “they just need the tools and know-how to do so.”

That was part of what motivated the Benedictines in Beech Grove, just a few miles from downtown Indianapolis, to call A Nun’s Life about hosting a podcast on the Motherhouse Road Trip.

From left, Benedictine Sr. Jennifer Mechtild Horner, A Nun's Life's Jane Aseltyne, and Benedictine Sr. Juliann Babcock run the live chatroom during the recording of the Nov. 14 "Ask Sister" podcast. (Dan Stockman)

“We’re always interested in sharing our lives with others, and there’s been a big effort here to reach out and engage younger audiences,” said Benedictine Sr. Mary Luke Jones. “Our vocational efforts are wrapped around that, but the audience has been difficult to tune in in the past. But because of technology, it’s a different world.”

That new world of technology is letting them connect with something very old, Jones said.

“Our roots are historical and ancient,” she said. “But we can either wring our hands and say we can’t relate to anyone anymore, or we can do what religious women have done throughout history, which is to ask, ‘How do we minister to people today?’”

Benedictine Sr. Juliann Babcock said the Road Trip fits perfectly with Saint Benedict’s ancient wisdom.

“We always want to know, how can we be of service?” Babcock said. “As Benedictines, we say it’s prayer, work and hospitality. Well, this is all three.”

The Internet, of course, can be a den of iniquity, so to speak.

“But religious have a long history or walking into dark places to reach people,” Vieira said. “And when they do, they find God is already there.”

And they bring light with them.

“We get a lot of email with a lot of questions,” Aseltyne said, “but my favorite was a comment that said, ‘Thanks for this little corner of love on the Internet.’ We’ve created a corner of love.”

Soon, the soundcheck – with deadpan jokes from Kollasch and Vieira a near constant – is finished and it’s time to get the chatroom running before the broadcast begins.

“Nun the table!” Vieira says, to laughter.

A few minutes before 5 p.m., more than 40 people are in the live audience, and Kollasch and Vieira introduce themselves and talk about what they do and how the broadcast will work. At the front of the room, next to the audio table, is a large screen showing the chatroom, so the live audience can see what’s happening online.

Soon, Vieira is on the mic, asking Jones to talk about how she became a Benedictine sister, and Jones tells the story of being inspired by her first-grade teacher, who is not only a Benedictine, but is in the audience. There is applause, and praise from the chatroom.

And another “Ask Sister” episode – this one is No. 160 – has begun.

Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Maxine Kollasch speaks to Benedictine Sr. Mary Luke Jones during a soundcheck for the Motherhouse Road Trip podcast. (Dan Stockman)

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook.]

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