Sister Helena comes face-to-face with Darth Vader on Hollywood Blvd. Sister Helena writes movie reviews for Catholic New World. (Courtesy of Sister Helena Burns)
The sanctuary inside St. Mary Catholic Church in the village of Huntley echoed with the voices of more than 200 high school freshmen. They fidgeted as they waited for confirmation class to begin.
A poster for the movie Warm Bodies appeared on a large screen behind Sister Helena Burns. She asked the students if any of them have seen it, and some raise their hands.
“What happens when the two fall in love?" she asked. "The zombie guy and the human girl, what happens?"
And yes, she was talking about a zombie movie.
“He starts to come back to life, right? His little heart starts beating. What else happens? Does it just stay between the two of them? It’s just their love, and it’s all closed off and private?" Sister Helena asked.
Hands began to pop up around the room, and one student shouted out the answer Sister Helena wanted.
"Yes, the love spreads," Sister Helena said to the students. "Two thumbs up! Wasn’t it great?”
The self-dubbed 'media nun' is teaching a class about theology of the body, the idea that the human body is a revelation of God.
Using popular movies as a way to communicate to teens is just one example of Sister Helena's media savvy. She also tweets, blogs, writes movie reviews
and is making a documentary film about her order's founder with Spirit Juice Studios.
She’s part of an international order of nuns called the Daughters of St. Paul. They claim they’re the only order in the world whose sole mission is using media to “communicate the gospel in a digital age.” And at a time when studies show more and more people are feeling disconnected from institutional churches, the sisters may have found an unusual way to reach out.
The order was founded by Father James Alberione in 1915. He had a vision media would explode in the 20th century, and he should spread the gospel to as many people as possible using whatever technologies were available.
Back in those days, that was mostly newspapers and passing out pamphlets door-to-door. In 1932, the order opened the Pauline bookstores, which have locations across the country, including Chicago.
The Daughters of St. Paul Choir singing at a Christmas concert in Boston. The order has its own state of the art sound studio for recording and producing albums. (Courtesy of Sister Helena Burns)
Over the years, the stores have adopted new forms of media and technology as they've come along.
Today, they're known as Pauline Books and Media.
They've expanded their technologies to include ebooks, smartphone apps and software, among others. Music from the Daughters of St. Paul choir can be found on YouTube and in iTunes.
The Chicago order of the Daughters of St. Paul is located over its Pauline Books and Media store on North Michigan Avenue in the Loop.
Dressed in her navy blue veil and smock, Sister Helena greeted me warmly when I dropped by the store. It was early, so there weren't any customers browsing the religious books or trying to track down communion gifts yet. Sister Helena led me to the back of the store, where we took an elevator upstairs to the convent. The furnishings in the florescent-lit kitchen were spartan but comfortable.
Sister Helena entered the Daughters of St. Paul at 17, after finding an ad in Catholic Digest. The order's mission of spreading the gospel through media spoke to her immediately.
“I felt, what better way could you bring God into somebody’s heart and soul and mind, just directly through a book, a song, a magazine, a film,” she said.
Sister Helena giving a talk on media literacy. The Daughters of St. Paul do various forms of outreach to teach others about using media responsibly. (Courtesy of Sister Helena Burns)
Sister Helena didn’t always know she was going to be a nun. Growing up, she dreamt of working with animals, especially birds. But she also loved reading and writing short stories
“I could see the influence for the good and the ill that media had on me, on my friends, and on society," she said. "I thought, ‘Wow, I would love to just get in there and affirm the good, and try to help people also reflect on their everyday media experiences.'"
The Daughters of St. Paul don’t just evangelize, they teach people to use media responsibly without allowing it to take over their lives. In addition to speaking to large groups like the confirmation class at St. Mary's, they also offer private sessions with families and individuals, or anyone who needs help balancing the media and technology.
Sister Helena told me about a woman whose granddaughter used to come over every day after school.
"'Because,' she said, 'Grandma, you look at me. I go to my house, my little brother’s playing with his games, my mother’s talking on her phone, my dad’s at the computer.' She said, ‘I come into your house, Grandma, and you’re at the computer, you shut it off.'”
In addition to working with teens and families, the order also uses media as a tool to recruit new sisters. A 2012 study from Georgetown University shows the number of nuns in the United States has dropped by two-thirds since the 1960s.
The Daughters of St. Paul hope to reverse that trend by reaching out to young women in their own language, social media.
That appealed to 30-year-old Danielle Lussier, who’s entering the order this September. Like Sister Helena, Danielle never pictured herself as a nun.
“They were other worldly, they were outside of my own worldview, totally, like, out of touch maybe? But also mysterious," she said.
Danielle studied photography and film in college, but she began to wonder if she was using her talents for the highest possible purpose. While on a religious retreat, she found her purpose in the Daughters of St. Paul.
Sister Helena filming a scene on location in Italy. She's working with Spirit Juice Studios of Chicago on a film about Father James Alberione, who founded the Daughters of St. Paul. (Courtesy of Sister Helena Burns)
“This is a means of reaching people where they are," Danielle said. "This is the language of our culture.”
Back at St. Mary Catholic Church, the nuns seem to be getting through. Fifteen-year-old Bailey said she's heard some "boring" speakers in confirmation class, but hearing a nun speak about a zombie movie caught her attention.
“She’s not just [living] this strict life, she can get out there and teach kids [in the way] we learn," Bailey said. "It’s kind of more our generation,” she said.
Now, Bailey said, she expects to pay more attention to Catholic issues when they pop up on Facebook.