Sr. Helena Burns and crew in Italy filming Father James Alberione, a documentary on the founder of the Pauline Family, to be released Jan. 25. Photo courtesy of Daughters of St. Paul

Daughters of St. Paul: media mavens for 100 years

  • January 10, 2015

TORONTO - Over the years, the strongest of Pauline Sisters could manage the huge printing presses and handle the massive rolls of paper — work that men usually did. But these women religious were determined to share the Gospel the way their founder thought best a century ago: The Daughters of St. Paul were made for media.

Today, the Sisters outsource printing, but have their hands in almost every media pie imaginable spanning print, broadcast and the Internet. Technology has been good to these media mavens.

“That’s what makes us so unique. Because many religious orders have a publishing arm like Franciscans do, Paulists do, Jesuits do, but that’s just one side thing that they do. For us, it’s our entire apostolate. So we were founded to evangelize with media,” said Sr. Helena Burns.

In 2015, the order celebrates its 100-year anniversary. Toronto’s Pauline Sisters will host a celebratory dinner Jan. 25 that will be attended by Cardinal Thomas Collins at the Montecassino Hotel.

With a congregation 2,400-strong in 50 countries, including five sisters in Toronto, the Daughters of St. Paul serve as bookstore managers, evangelizers and catechists, writers, curriculum designers, social media experts, digital content providers, web designers and masters, programmers, graphic designers, media literacy educators, singers, musicians, recording and radio engineers, filmmakers, the list goes on.

“We embrace media at Daughters of St. Paul. That’s what our founder wanted us to do, to embrace all the latest media, to engage it. You don’t embrace it unequivocally and uncritically. You must question,” said Burns. “It’s not easy… We can’t let the media control us. We have to be in control of the media.”

Burns herself is known online for her activity on Twitter, her film reviews and her popular blog “Hell Burns” about Theology of the Body and media literacy. She says the Sisters are credited with being “instrumental in keeping communism at bay” by distributing Bibles and Catholic magazines in Italy, Brazil and Latin America. In 1950, the order’s founder, Fr. James Alberione, made Italy’s first colour film, Mary, Mother of God. As well, in the Philippines in the 1980s, the Pauline Sisters “became icons of the bloodless… ‘Rosary Revolution’ because they were some of the first nuns to take to the streets” in the “People Power” protest of the Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship.

The Sisters have run a bookstore, the Pauline Books & Media Centre, in Toronto since they arrived in 1956.

“We’ve been here quite a while and we have generations of people coming now, grandma bringing her grandkids,” said Burns. “It’s easier to give people more help if you’re really an expert at that media.”

This year, the Paulines in Canada plan on launching a web site and webstore. “Rather than just providing Canadian and imported media through our book centre, we want to make it easier for Canadians to get information, inspiration, products through a full-service web site-webstore that is distinctly Canadian,” said Burns.

Burns is currently working on her master’s degree in media literacy education. She has seen a revolution in media over the years, leading to the Internet, which Burns says has given new life to old media.

“There’s a rule of media literacy that new media does not replace old media. It just takes its place alongside it,” she said. But “media does not replace one-on-one evangelization. That’s why we have our bookstores all over the world. Bookstores are very old media.”

Alberione founded the Society of St. Paul in 1915 in northern Italy to print and distribute Catholic newspapers, magazines and books.

“He wanted the Church to invent media,” said Burns. “He said we should be inventing technology to spread the Gospel. We have the best message so we should be at the forefront.”

Alberione also founded the “women’s workshop,” which opened a shop to sell the society’s materials. Among the women were Venerable Mother Thecla Merlo, who co-founded the order with Alberione.

“Blessed James Alberione was a big fan of the ‘feminine genius.’ He wrote a book in 1910 called Woman Associated with Priestly Zeal, and before women could even be awarded a degree in Sacred Theology, had his Sisters doing the same studies as his priests. He also had the Sisters driving motorcycles and cars before most women ever did,” said Burns.

But neither he nor Mother Thecla gave the order the name by which it is known. The Daughters of St. Paul were actually named by the townspeople of Susa, Italy.

“In the (Susa) bookshop opened by the women’s workshop was a large statue of St. Paul. When the apartment where the young women were living caught on fire, someone from the town exclaimed: ‘The apartment of the Daughters of St. Paul is on fire!’ And the name stuck,” writes Burns on the history of her order.

To purchase tickets for the centenary dinner, call (416) 781-9131 ext. 214 or e-mail

Comments (2)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Very interesting and informative article. I enjoyed learning the little story behind the Congregation's name. Hope the Canadian website comes out soon!

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What matters for the sacrament of holy orders, and for the priest to be a visible sign of the acting presence of Christ, is not that Jesus is male but that in him the eternal Word assumed a human body, in the "flesh."

Luis Gutierrez
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