High-tech nuns living on the edge (of JP)

May 13, 2011
By

Rebeca Oliveira

JAMAICA HILLS—A worldwide media empire—with books, CDs and mobile apps—has its English-speaking headquarters on a quiet, tree-lined street on the very edge of JP. This empire produces award-winning music and books enjoyed the world over and a concert series that tours every year.

This empire also has a very strict dress code: habits.

The Daughters of St. Paul, an order of Catholic nuns that seek to share the message of Jesus Christ—through any means available—have made their North American home on St. Paul’s Avenue since the 1950s.

The Gazette paid them a visit to meet some of Jamaica Plain’s often-forgotten neighbors.

“Our founder said to use whatever technology became available,” Sister Patricia told the Gazette—and use technology they do.

Inside the large complex, the sisters and their lay staff write and produce books—from coloring books to self-help, theology and biographies—music and spoken word CDs, pamphlets, posters, meditation cards and mobile phone prayer apps.

About 70 sisters and novices live on the complex on St. Paul’s Avenue on the JP/Brookline border. They write many of the books, staff the online store, produce the records and create the art themselves, with the help of their non-clergy staff. The chapel on the grounds is open all day, with regular services for the sisters.

“Mother Paula [one of the order’s founders] said, ‘You can’t give what you don’t have,’” Sister Kathryn said, referring to their faith.

The series of buildings—each with a devotional name—feel like a well-loved high school, clean and comfortable but sparse. There is a crucifix in just about every room. Welcoming smells waft up from the kitchen through the main building. Kitchen herb seedlings can be seen growing under lamps in the design room. Smiles are given freely to visitors.

The order’s older, convalescent sisters—some of whom received the habit from the order’s founder, Mother Thecla, in the 1930s and 40s—all live in JP, to consolidate health care necessities. Sister Augusta, 95, entered the order in 1936 in Italy before moving to the U.S. in 1953. She still spends several hours a day praying in the chapel, Sister Kathryn said.

Sister Augusta confirmed all these details in imperfect English but with a broad smile on her face.

The nuns’ latest technological expansion pushed them into the realm of smartphone apps.

“There is a whole new audience, a whole new space to share with God,” Sister Kathryn said. “People can snatch a few moments here and there to commune with God,” she added, showing off their latest app, “Beginning Contemplative Prayer,” a companion app to Sister Kathryn’s book of the same name.

The app boasts eight 25-minute audio prayers, prayer ideas and a five-week personal plan for growth in contemplative prayer, which includes a different morning, midday and evening prayer for each week. Sister Kathryn has written several books, mostly self-help books, for Pauline Books, their publishing arm.

Another of their apps features the rosary being prayed out loud. It has an email function that allows the user to let others know that a prayer has been offered on their behalf.

“We pray while we create these things and we pray for the people who will receive them,” said Sister Patricia, who works on the apps.

Their recording studio also uses state-of-the-art software—in this case, to produce award-winning recordings of the Daughters of St. Paul choir, several of which can be bought on iTunes.

The sisters record an album every summer and tour nationally every year during the Christmas season. This Christmas’s concert will mark their 16th anniversary of performing in Boston. The performances are open to the public.

The books produced by the sisters run the gamut from biographies of Pope John Paul II—a hot ticket-item, now that he has just been beatified—to books featuring bad boys turned surfer priests (“No Turning Back” by Donald Calloway).

They also produce short stories, comic books, graphic novels, coloring books and bibles for children.

Sister Shawn in publishing said she assumes all their books—they aim for 40 published titles a year—will end up as e-books. They try and publish half of those for younger readers, she said, and half for adults.

“Books for grown-ups, not adult books,” she clarifies with a chuckle.

The building where the final stages of assembly and shipping used to take place is called The Promised Land.

The sisters operate 15 bookstores and media centers all over the U.S., with one in Canada. The nearest store is in Dedham, at the intersection of Routes 1 and 128.

The nuns have—and frequently use—Facebook pages. Their “Ask A Catholic Nun” page has 13,337 fans and won “Best Catholic Facebook Page” in the 2011 About.com Catholicism Readers’ Choice Awards.

“People come back because they feel loved here,” Sister Kathryn said.

The sisters recently offered 15 acres of their property for sale. Though they received multiple bids, their attorney stated that none of them were “viable,” as the Gazette previously reported. The attorney said the property offering was purely exploratory to see what the land might be worth. The Gazette did not see the land and the nuns did not address the issue.

The sisters’ books, recordings, apps and other media are available to order through their website, pauline.org. For more information on JP’s resident word-spreading sisters, visit dsp.pauline.org.