Pedestrians walk past Pauline Books and Media on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago on September 6. (RNS/Emily McFarlan Miller)
Chicago— When the Daughters of Saint Paul received permission from Cardinal John Cody of Chicago to open a bookstore in downtown Chicago in 1979, they scrambled to make it happen in time for Pope John Paul II’s visit to the city later that year.
By the time the Pope’s motorcade descended Michigan Avenue in October, the first floor of a former storefront had been successfully converted to Pauline Books and Media, and the Pope’s books lined the storefronts. Above the display, the sisters unfurled a huge banner on the facade of the building: “We love you, John Paul II”.
Over the next four decades, the store – formerly a haberdashery that had once housed Liberace, Muhammad Ali and former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley – would become legendary in its own right.
The decision to shut down the location, steps from iconic landmarks like Millennium Park, came much more slowly.
Sr. Tracey Matthia Dugas (RNS/Emily McFarlan Miller)
After six years of prayer and outward consultation, and a surge of the COVID-19 pandemic, the order has decided to reconfigure its presence across the United States and Toronto, according to Sr. Tracey Matthia Dugas, Director of Advancement of the Pauline mission. This means the closure of four sites in the United States, including the Chicago Book Center and the convent above.
“Technology changes often and our mission demands that we use the most modern and efficient means [to reach out to people]”said Dugas, 50, who has been based in Chicago since 2018.
The Chicago sisters celebrated a closing Mass over the weekend at the nearby Assumption Catholic Church.
The book center will close on September 24; the convent on the three floors above, soon after. Two of the four sisters in Chicago are destined for the motherhouse in Boston; the other two for Saint-Louis, according to Dugas.
Pauline Books and Media on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago will permanently close September 24, 2022. (RNS/Emily McFarlan Miller)
Other closing locations include Honolulu; Charleston, South Carolina; and San Antonio, TX. These closures will impact 11 other sisters, who will move to the remaining locations by early 2023.
The Daughters of Saint Paul has about 120 sisters spread over 13 sites in the United States and Toronto. A total of approximately 1,900 sisters, affectionately known as the “media nuns”, serve in more than 50 countries around the world, according to the site of the order.
Founded in Italy in 1914 by Fr. Giacomo Alberione and Sr. Thecla Merlo, the Daughters of Saint Paul are missionary sisters who strive to “bring Christ to the world by the most effective means of communication”.
This includes books, choral recordings, documentaries and even Twitter feeds. The order’s hit “memento mori” series, written by Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, began with daily reflections she posted on Twitter over the course of a year, inspired by a skull she kept on her desk.
But people do not shop in bookstores as before, and they are no longer join religious orders. When Dugas discerned his vocation, she said, the order welcomed two or three new members each year. Now it’s half.
And “every mission territory is dangerous,” Dugas said — including social media. She’s taking a break from her own online presence after realizing she’s struggling to hear her own thoughts on the constant loop of audio trends.
Still, the sisters want to focus on growing their digital platforms, according to a FAQ on the order site.
Sr. Chelsea Bethany Davis, 31, recently helped start the Daughters of St. Paul presence on TikTok – perhaps better known by the hashtag #NunTok.
“I’ve always loved keeping up with the latest apps and social media, so when I saw what an amazing opportunity TikTok was, I jumped on it,” Davis said in an email to Religion News Service. .
“As Daughters of St. Paul, our motivating hope with the use of social media is always to bring people closer to Jesus…we also like to pull back the mysterious mantle of religious life a bit to give people insight of our life!”
Davis, who recently took final vows and is stationed in Alexandria, Va., lived above the book center in Chicago for about three years after making his first profession.
She had grown up on a small farm in Maryland and suddenly found herself in a bustling metropolis. She watched the sunrise over Daley Plaza and prayed for the people she watched rushing to work each morning as she walked to mass.
On her first visit, Sr. Jacqueline Jean-Marie Gitonga was also struck by the sense of peace that reigns inside the convent despite the hectic pace of life just outside its walls. She thought, “I can’t believe this. I’m right in the middle of town, and it’s so quiet and peaceful here.”
Sr. Jacqueline Jean-Marie Gitonga (Courtesy photo)
“It’s like Moses and the burning bush. I have to find out why that bush isn’t burning. I have to come back. There’s something about it.”
Gitonga, 44, had come to know the Daughters of St. Paul while a doctoral student abroad from Kenya at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She would take several hours by bus to Chicago to intern with the sisters and spend time discerning the unexpected call she felt to religious life. Now stationed in New Orleans, she spent about three years in Chicago.
“It was like being a kid in a candy store,” she said of her visit to the bookstore as a student.
Recognizing the importance of community after many people have been separated by the pandemic, the sisters plan to transform their remaining book centers into more vibrant spaces for people to come together.
On a recent Tuesday, a life-size cardboard cutout of Pope Francis smiled at passers-by from the window of the Chicago store as they reversed carpools for the nearby hotel or walked past staring at their phones, ignoring a choir recording of “We are the world” drifting from the book center, along with the sign on its door that reads “Get your items now, while supplies last!”
Dugas remembered when the foot traffic along Michigan Avenue drew a wide variety of customers, though some tourists quickly turned around when they realized it was a Catholic bookstore and not a souvenir shop.
“You never knew what was coming through the door,” she said.
“There’s something delicious about it — and sometimes terrifying — but you see the web of humanity in all its beauty, and in all its need, and in all its horror,” she said. . “We truly believe that somehow God is calling them here to nurture them and in many ways to win them back as his children.”
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