Habit forming: Sisters use Internet to help spread the word

Waltham, USA - Facing declining numbers, local sisters are turning to the Internet to build their flock.

YouTube videos, blogs and Web sites are among the more popular ways some Roman Catholic sisters are reaching the younger generation.

About eight sisters from the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Boston live in Waltham. They meet regularly to pray and perform missionary work in Greater Boston.

Sister Susan Reilly, 63, a Waltham resident, entered the order of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Boston after high school.

"When I started there were over 2000 sisters in Boston. I think the current number is 447," Reilly said.

Reilly said when she joined the Sisters of Saint Joseph with 56 others in 1963. She said, since then, the enrollment numbers have dropped.

"There's been a huge change in the number of people," she said. "When my cousin Pat (recently) entered the community, she was the only one."

Sister Joanne Gallagher, director of communications for the Sisters of Saint Joseph, said the decline can be seen as part of a larger historical change in women's roles.

"I think the world is changing and how people can serve religions in the world has changed," she said. "Certainly it's a change from the way I knew it, but there's still a lot of hope and there's a lot of energy and outreach to women to consider religious life."

The sisters keep the city informed of their mission through their Web site, www.csjboston.org.

"These are ways young people are finding their direction in life today," Gallagher said. "We also know that personal invitations are paramount. It's very important."

Gallagher said the sisters plan to use more Web-based resources in the future. "I'm also in the process of starting a blog," she said.

The Sisters of Saint Joseph of Boston are not alone in trying to build numbers through the Internet.

Marist Missionary Sisters have been based in the city since 1961, when Cardinal Richard Cushing provided the space on Newton Street, said Sister Mary Amora.

She said there are around 35 or 36 sisters living in Waltham. She said at one point there were close to 100 sisters living in the Marist Missionary facilities.

Amora said a major reason for the national decline in the numbers is because many sisters have spread out around the world for missionary work.

"I think all the orders have experienced a decrease, yes it is true," Amora said.

She said the Marist Missionary Sisters also have a Web site targeting young women, www.maristmissionarysmsm.org.

Sister Marian Batho, a Delegate for Religious for the Archdiocese of Boston, said her office represents more than 80 communities of sisters. Batho said there is an increase use of the Internet among religious communities when trying to reach a younger audience.

"Modern technology is really where younger people are and what they are familiar with," she said. "There is, among younger folks, a tremendous interest in religious life, they just don't know where to find us."

She added "online, you can take an virtual tour of a particular community of sisters and you can e-mail them questions."

Gallagher said while it is important to spread the word, it's more important the information reaches the right people.

"It's a mutual process of coming to a decision whether it's a good fit for both us and the woman that's becoming a member of our community," she said. "We're out there listening to the heartbeat of women in the world today who are searching for a way to live their Catholic or Christian lives in a way that has meaning to them. We know there are women out there that want to do that."

Looking for a change of life

Gallagher said the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Boston sometimes reach out to middle-aged women looking to make a life change.

Such was the case with Reilly, who influenced her second cousin Sister Patricia Quinn of Watertown to join the order.

"Shortly after my father died I was chatting with her," Reilly said. "She wanted to come over for supper. Afterwards I said I must send her a thank you note."

Reilly said she accidentally wrote "Sister Patricia Quinn" on the thank you note, which sparked a conversation.

"I had to make my 'S' into an 'M' for Ms. Patricia Quinn," Reilly said. "Then while I was writing to her, I explained to her what I did and I said 'Who knows, maybe it's a sign we don't know about."'

Quinn, who was a medical technician, is halfway through the process of becoming a Sister of St. Joseph.

"I would say that I had been looking for something else out of life instead of a career" Quinn said. "I was a workaholic and that just wasn't providing any satisfaction.

Quinn said she was looking for ways to serve people.

"I tend to think now it's kind of a 'me-generation' and everyone's out for themselves," she said. "I'm not like that. I always was close to God and I thought God was looking at me and saying this wasn't making me happy."

Quinn started the process in 2002 and has completed her first vows as a sister. She plans to make her lifetime commitment in a few years.

"I think women don't think of becoming religious now because we are not in a lot of schools so they have no contact with sisters and nuns," Quinn said. "We are on YouTube. We are becoming more visible. Right now everyone looks for everything they want on the information highway."