Finding community online: study underscores role of Internet in vocation outreach

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Sister Mary Esther Downey didn’t grow up around Catholic sisters, so her early exposure to religious communities online played a key role in her discernment process. Now 28, the Iowa native is a Dominican Sister of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist teaching high-school theology in Peoria, Illinois. In conversation with fellow Dominican sisters, she discovered they too had turned to the Internet in their initial search for a community.

“A number of sisters in my own community didn’t grow up around sisters either,” she said. “The way they encountered our community was through the Internet.”

The vital role of the Internet was confirmed by a new, first-of-its-kind study commissioned by A Nun’s Life Ministry and funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

Most congregations have an online presence, the study found, but many have room to expand. A press release noted:

Institutes report that in particular their vocation promoters are “very much” eager to learn more about online presence. They desire to be present to and connect with young women in social networks. At the same time, however, there are a number of challenges.

  • Institutes are online, but typically not in the social channels utilized most by a younger demographic that may be considering religious life.
  • Institutes are much less likely to use social platforms such as Pinterest (14%), Instagram (11%), Snapchat (4%), or chatrooms (4%) – those which are popular with a younger demographic.
  • While the overwhelming majority of institutes surveyed has an online presence, it is mostly their own website (92%) or Facebook (70%).

The research study shows that institutes value social media as a way to understand young people today. The Dominican Sisters of Peace are a case in point.

Each day, a member of the Dominican Sisters of Peace staff checks the congregation's Facebook page to review comments and respond to posts from users. The congregation is also active on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. It maintains a website and blogs and buys online advertising.

“Social media allows the discerner to interact with us at a pace and distance that they find comfortable,” said Dominican Sister June Fitzgerald, vocation minister for the Dominican Sisters of Peace in New Haven, Conn. “They can post, respond, send a message--or simply read, observe and learn. Being a part of a media that they use every day helps reinforce the message that they may be receiving in their heart and creates a non-threatening way to learn more and ask questions.”

To download the executive summaries of this study, click here

About Christina Capecchi

Christina Capecchi is an award-winning journalist from Inver Grove Heights, Minn. She is the author of the nationally syndicated column “Twenty Something,” which appears in more than 50 Catholic newspapers across the country. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, America, The Chicago Tribune, The Star Tribune and The Pioneer Press. She also provides contracted editing and writing services. She holds a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a bachelor’s from Mount Mercy University.