Taking the Sisters of Charity Portal on linePrint
Some days can be more unusual than others, and we were already in unusual times.
It was March, and the implications and ramifications of the coronavirus were just starting to be understood. We were about to be sent from the office to work remotely thanks to the coronavirus lockdown.
One of the main implications for Religious Congregations and Institutes worldwide was that all their General Chapters and Chapters (regular meetings during which the leadership teams are elected for fixed terms, and matters relating to religious life are discussed and resolved) were indefinitely postponed.
The Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life initially decreed that the Chapters had to meet face to face but not until a vaccine had been created, tested, proven.
So that day in March, Sr Clare Nolan, the Congregational Leader of the Sisters of Charity of Australia, told me I was about to get very busy. She wanted an interactive television station for the Sisters, so that preparation for the Chapter, which had been planned by September but was now postponed indefinitely, could continue.
And she wanted it by the second week of May.
Right. Having worked in television production, I knew what an intense form of media it could be, and how labour-intensive. I wondered how it could be managed and I was concerned. But I shouldn’t have been.
I called Conal McCullough, with whom we had worked on streaming and coverage of the Sisters’ Gathering in 2018 and the launch of the Sisters of Charity Heritage Centre. Could we do it, what would he suggest? A portal which encompassed Zoom meeting capacity, as well as document storage, he suggested. I asked him for a scope of the works and impressed on him the looming deadline.
It turns out that the RSC On Line Portal would come together on time, on budget, and look elegantly simple. Usually, web sites (and a portal is a mini website) could be two of three. But the most important aspects for this project were timeliness and ease of use – the average age of the Sisters of Charity of Australia is 80 plus so they are mostly not native digital speakers.
So a team started to form, under the oversight of the Director of Operations, Rosemary Young. We met regularly via Zoom from home offices to monitor progress in different areas.
Sr Clare had tapped external contractor, Bruce Stephens, with whom she has worked for decades, including at Sisters of Charity Outreach, to work effectively as the producer for the on line sessions. He would come to work closely with Conal during the months to come.
Conal swiftly came up with a proposal, and the Congregational Leader and Council quickly adopted it. The portal now had to be delivered. Conal started to develop the site, working with a small team in Perth.
At the same time, access to the portal became the focus. Some of the Sisters would not want to come into the sessions, but most would. Out of the 110 Sisters at the time, around 70 indicated that they wanted to be able to access the portal and the sessions.
At this stage, the Congregation’s IT consultants, CMSIT, became involved. Many of the Sisters did not have devices which would allow easy access so the principal, Angelo Millena, and his team, set about accessing the tablets, and programming them. That meant the Sisters could come into the portal at the tap of one button.
This was turning into a cross-organisational effort. Our administrative officer, James Griffiths, started to contact Sisters to audit what they had and what they needed. He compiled a mini-training manual to help get them up to speed on how to use the portal. The EA to Sister Clare and the directorate, Kaylene Taylor, and Melinda Gutierrez, the EA to the Congregational Leader and Council, were, along with James, trained in the ins and outs of Zoom by Bruce.
As the delivery date came closer, the devices were finding their way into the Sisters’ hands (Angelo was working over weekends to pull this off). Then, it was time for end-user testing.
Understandably, there was some anxiety among the Sisters about using the technology, so It was decided to complete a trial before opening night: A number of Sisters, including the Congregational Leader and Council, were invited to road test the portal.
Thankfully, it went well for the most part, and the Sisters who were on line for that meeting became keen advocates for this essential new way to communicate. We even managed to spread news of our portal technology to another couple of Congregations, one of which commissioned Conal to adapt our portal to their needs.
We had a very slightly undisciplined start (pictures missing, volume missing, odd framing, feedback), but Sisters very quickly accustomed themselves to the technology and now they love their weekly catch up meetings and miss them during non-portal session weeks.
The portal also brings another consolation in these days of COVID-19 restrictions on numbers attending funerals. All our on line Sisters are now able to go to the portal for live-streamed Masses for their Sisters. That has been an unexpected blessing.
Image 1: The landing page for the Sisters’ portal
Image 2: Conal McCullough, directing a session on line from Perth
Image 3: Bruce Stephens producing a portal session in the Sydney boardroom
Image 4: Sr Annette Cunliffe, ready for a portal session from the Sydney boardroom
Image 5: Sr Clare Nolan, in her office ready for a portal session
by Christine Hogan