Benedictines in Rock Island hope ‘virtual monastery’ tour leads to in-person visits
ROCK ISLAND — It’s a question Sister Stefanie MacDonald, OSB, is asked often when people find out she lives in a monastery: “Can I go there?”
“They think they can’t go in,” said Sister Stefanie, director of vocations for the Benedictine Sisters of St. Mary Monastery in Rock Island and a preschool teacher at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Academy in East Moline.
“Everyone is welcome,” she emphasized. “Our charism is one of hospitality, that all are welcome.”
As a way of giving people a peek into monastery life and inviting them to come closer, St. Mary Monastery has partnered with Mandle Design Inc. to create a Virtual Monastery Experience. It can be found at smmsisters.org/virtual-monastery.
The “tour” is filled with 360 photography of the monastery’s entryway, chapel, library, and dining room, and gives a dramatic overview of the grounds with the help of a drone. It also provides information about various features in each space.
Among the people Sister Stefanie is hoping will feel particularly welcome are women who are exploring religious life. The goal is to give them another piece of information as they’re searching.
“Hopefully it would help them feel more comfortable to reach out and then actually come visit in person because they’ve seen a little bit of our house,” she told The Catholic Post.
EASY TO NAVIGATE
Sister Stefanie came across the idea at a conference of the National Catholic Educational Association in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2018.
“I was at a session on recruitment for Catholic schools and they talked about how we needed to have as much online as possible because the generation that is starting to send children to school, that’s how they do most of their research,” she explained. “They were talking about school tours and everything else.”
She thought the idea could work for vocations, too, since the demographic is the same in terms of how they use social media.
The community reached out Mandle Design Inc. of Davenport, Iowa, which maintains their website and helps with design for Connecting Point, the Benedictines’ newsletter. Big Tech River helped with the 360 photography and drone footage.
“I thought it was a good idea,” said Chris Mandle, president and director of creative identity for Mandle Design Inc. “In our work with traditional clients . . . this is pretty common technology.”
That includes restaurants and a growing number of realtors, who use 360 technology to show what’s offered before the client actually visits the property, he said.
“I frankly liked the idea of marrying that sort of technology with a religious community,” Mandle said.
User experience was important, so they knew it couldn’t be complicated, he said. It also had to be easy to navigate.
“We didn’t want people to be frustrated. We wanted them to have such a great experience that hopefully they would come and tour in person,” he explained.
“I think it’s just a new way for people to immerse themselves into what it would be like if you were to live as a Benedictine,” said Mandle, a member of Sacred Heart Church in Rock Island.
One of the main parts of the tour is the chapel, which is the center and focus of Benedictine life. Sister Stefanie said there are probably more points of interest highlighted in the chapel than anywhere else.
The Virtual Monastery Experience is designed so that it can grow. While it references Benet House Retreat Center at St. Mary Monastery, a virtual tour of that space and the resources offered there will be added in the second phase of the project. A third phase will offer a closer look at what is available along the lake and walking paths outside.
Mandle said he’s not aware of any other religious communities that have done something like this.
The virtual tour was made public on the Benedictine Sisters’ Facebook page in June and has already received some positive feedback, according to Sister Stefanie. Not only has she heard from someone who is interested in monastic life, but an inquirer from Indiana has been able to use it to show her family the place she has been visiting.
“It’s cool to be able to give another experience of where we are and what it’s like,” Sister Stefanie said. “It was exciting, even for myself, who goes into these spaces all the time, to tool around on the computer and touch different things.”