Local Religious life

Social media allows outsiders a glimpse into religious life

The monks of St. Benedict’s Abbey, Atchison, twice pause in their day for lectio divina — reading and praying over sacred texts in silence. But with social media, people around the globe can glimpse Father Gabriel Landis, OSB, carrying on this ancient practice in the St. Benedict Room of the abbey. The Leaven is featuring local religious orders’ digital wizards as part of its National Vocation Awareness Week coverage. PHOTO BY JD BENNING

by Moira Cullings
moira.cullings@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — “Life at a monastery can be kind of mysterious,” said Julie Ferraro, social media and digital communications manager for the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison.

What goes on inside might surprise people.

Ferraro often finds herself documenting the Sisters celebrating birthdays, cooking, gardening, playing musical instruments and cuddling up with the Mount’s dog and cats.

“There’s no such thing as a typical workday,” she said of her role at the Mount.

Life at many religious communities was once a mystery to the outside world.

Now, thanks to social media — and the communicators behind the scenes — the public can get a unique glimpse into life inside a religious order.

Documenting history

Stephanie Nash began working for the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth 15 years ago.

She wears a variety of hats, including overseeing the Sisters’ social media accounts, which never run out of content to share.

Stephanie Nash began working for the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth 15 years ago. She wears a variety of hats, including overseeing the Sisters’ social media accounts, which never run out of content, thanks to archived photographs and the bustling life at the motherhouse. PHOTO COURTESY OF STEPHANIE NASH

The order has been in Leavenworth since 1858.

“Facebook is our place to tell our story of the SCL charism and how we give back to the communities we live in,” said Nash.

“We share many archived photos,” she added, “because we love to jog people’s memories of the Sisters they knew once upon a time.”

Photos of the motherhouse campus in Leavenworth are also a hit.

“It is a gorgeous campus,” said Nash, “and many of our ‘followers’ spent [or] spend a lot of time here. It generates comments and interaction on our posts.”

Other posts revolve around holidays, the Sisters’ personal stories and even job openings within the order.

A group of Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth and staff members load a bus to travel to Chicago for the Sisters of Charity Federation Assembly of the Whole in the summer of 2019. PHOTO BY STEPHANIE NASH

The public will get to know the Sisters even better now that Bryon McLaughlin, their director of communications, is producing a podcast, where he interviews the Sisters on a variety of topics.

The team is planning to launch the podcast before the end of the year.

Nash believes digital communication is a chance to cultivate religious vocations.

“Posting real stories, real photos and real situations of real Sisters can be potentially inspiring and life-changing for young people,” said Nash. “It is exciting to think about.”

Through social media, she hopes to illustrate that the Sisters are normal people living out their call in a special way.

“They are relatable, dependable way-makers,” said Nash of the Sisters. “Sharing an intimate side of their lives gives us an opportunity to share the incredible Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth history.”

Streaming across the world

Life is never dull for JD Benning, who started working at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison 13 years ago.

“Social media is sort of the fire that constantly has to be fed,” said Benning, the abbey’s director of communications. “If you want to keep up engagement, you’ve got to constantly be posting things.

“It’s a never-ending project, but it’s a great vehicle to share the good works that the monks are doing.”

JD Benning, director of communications at St. Benedict’s Abbey, tells the monks’ stories with photos and videos that capture everyday life and special events for a global audience. PHOTO COURTESY OF JD BENNING

When it comes to following the monks online, there’s a little something for everyone. Benning and his team utilize a variety of communication tools, and they’re never lacking in the creativity department.

Benning’s ingenuity might be summed up by the monks’ Abbot’s Table videos, which promote the order through humor, history and stories.

“It’s easy to think of monks as stodgy old men that sit in silence all day long,” said Benning. “These guys are very much not doing that.”

In actuality, the monks are engaged in community life, he explained, particularly at the Benedictine College campus where they live and work.

Lately, the monks are communicating through a Gregorian chant series called “Communio,” which analyzes the Communion antiphon each Sunday.

The monks’ communications team runs a specific website for men interested in pursuing a religious vocation.

They also have a separate website — monkvocations.org — for men who are discerning a religious vocation.

Benning said social media continues to open doors for the monks to reach more and more people.

During Holy Week last year, for example, some 1,600 users from every continent except Antarctica participated in a retreat with the monks.

“They can reach people around the world [with social media], which they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do,” said Benning. “It’s a powerful tool for sure.”

Bringing the light

Sister Elizabeth Miles helps manage the Facebook page of the Sisters, Servants of Mary Ministers to the Sick USA Province.

More commonly known as the Sisters, Servants of Mary, the order has communities in Kansas City, Kansas, as well as California, Louisiana, New York and Mexico.

Sister Elizabeth Miles helps manage the Facebook page of the Sisters, Servants of Mary. The purpose of the order’s Facebook page is to spread awareness about its existence, promote vocations and connect with a vast audience. COURTESY PHOTO

Sister Elizabeth said the purpose of the order’s Facebook page is to spread awareness about its existence, promote vocations and connect with a vast audience.

She believes religious communities’ online presence “lets young adults know that there is another vocational option and shares knowledge of the different ministries provided by religious.”

“But most of all, it shows that God is what is most important in our lives,” she said, “and that it is in finding God’s will and following it that we will experience the fullness of joy possible in this life and give the greatest glory to God.”

The Servants of Mary Facebook page is a place for followers to find inspiration for their faith and learn more about the religious order.

Sister Elizabeth also directs women who reach out about curiosities or questions to her own personal Facebook page, where they can talk privately.

She emphasized that social media isn’t for everyone, but that a Catholic presence is a necessary part of the church’s role in modern society.

“There can be setbacks to social media,” she said, “but keeping our presence there is a way to bring light into the darkness.”

Behind the scenes

Ferraro started her role at Mount St. Scholastica this past June after 30 years of journalism experience.

She quickly became engulfed in the daily life of the Sisters.

“They have that good balance where they stay in the real world, they understand what’s going on in the world and they want to deal with it and help people,” she said.

Julie Ferraro is the social media and digital communications manager for the Benedictine Sisters in Atchison. She documents daily life at the Mount for social media and other projects. PHOTO COURTESY OF JULIE FERRARO

Right now, Ferraro is busy working on content to promote the Mount’s “Night of Dreams” virtual fundraiser taking place Nov. 14.

She most enjoys watching the Sisters care for each other and sharing that viewpoint with others.

“I’m showing [the public] that they’re very human and they do a lot of the same things that everybody else does,” she said.

A team from the Newsy network visits Mount St. Scholastica in August of this year, suiting up in protective gear to film the beehives on the premises. PHOTO BY JULIE FERRARO

Ferraro collaborates with vocation director Sister Marcia Ziska, OSB, to spark interest in vocations through a variety of efforts.

That work is accomplished on social media, as well as the “Sisters in Ministry” page on the Mount’s website, where people can learn more about religious life and why it matters.

Ferraro hopes the Mount’s social media will continue to inspire.

“The Sisters have a lot to teach me,” she said, “and they can teach others by their examples and their lives.

“It’s so great to be a part of it.”

Where to find them

Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica
Visit: mountosb.org or find the Sisters on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth
Visit: scls.org or find them on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Sisters, Servants of Mary
Visit: sisterservantsofmary.org or find them on Facebook.

St. Benedict’s Abbey
Visit: kansasmonks.org or find them on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Youtube.

Where to find more of them

The Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT) Sisters, who came to the region in the 1960s to work in education and complete mission work,founded Our Lady Montessori School in Kansas City, Kansas. Learn more about their work at: https://www.olmskc.org/about or find the order on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

About the author

Moira Cullings

Moira attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park and Benedictine College in Atchison. She majored in marketing, minored in psychology and played center midfield for the women’s soccer team. Moira joined The Leaven staff as a feature writer and social media editor in 2015. After a move to Denver in 2018, Moira resumed her full-time position at The Leaven and continues to write and manage the website and social media channels. Her favorite assignment was traveling to the Holy Land to take photos for a group pilgrimage in 2019.

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