Sister Theresa Noble, Sister Catherine Wybourne, Sister Jennifer Tecla
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Meet the selfie-snapping Sisters of Snapchat

“If St Paul were alive today, he would be doing the same thing.”

Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble likes to remind her thousands of social media followers that they are going to die.

The 36-year-old nun gets up every morning between 5 and 5:30am and heads to her convent’s chapel to meditate. After reflecting on the gospel for half an hour, she joins the 60 sisters she lives with in Morning Prayer, attends mass, and then eats breakfast. During the day, she fits in nearly two hours of personal prayer around her job in the convent’s publishing house, where she works as an editor (though the nuns in her order were initially only expected to slot in an hour of prayer, it was increased by half an hour after a sister asked for personal prayer time to be shortened).

In between all of this, Sister Theresa posts on her incredibly popular Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat accounts.

“Got this in the mail today,” she Snapchatted on 20 December, holding up a gold coin emblazoned with a skull and the words “memento mori”. This summer, Sister Theresa purchased a ceramic skull to sit on her desk to remind her of these words, which translated from Latin roughly mean “remember that you will die”. It is a reminder her social media followers have received throughout the summer.

Sister Theresa

When we think of Snapchat, we tend not to think of nuns. Most behaviour on the disappearing-image app is distinctly unholy, as teenagers use the tool to flirt, gossip, and show off. Nuns are so underrepresented on the app that when it came to creating her Bitmoji (a cartoon avatar for Snapchat users), Sister Theresa struggled. There was no habit or veil, so the nun settled for a hijab.

Yet Sister Theresa is not the only Snapchatting nun. She is a Daughter of St Paul, an international group of Catholic nuns who use the media to spread the word of God (also known as #MediaNuns). “Our founder believed that if St Paul were alive today, he would be on Twitter and Facebook,” explains Sister Theresa, “because he was writing letters to churches and he was getting on boats to communicate to his flock. So if he were alive today he’d be doing the same thing.”

Sister Jennifer Tecla Hyatt  is a 45-year-old nun with a fondness for Snapchat filters. “Humour is a good medicine in life,” she says. “I wanted to give a lot of presentations to youth and I want to be able to speak their language… I like to stay connected so that I can be able to communicate better with the youth in that way.”

Sister Jennifer

Selfies are usually condemned as vain or silly, but nuns like Sisters Theresa and Jennifer find they can help to humanise religious life. “It makes it more personable,” explains Sister Jennifer, “Although I’m still developing the skill of doing it properly, especially when it comes to taking group selfies.”

Sister Jennifer with her fellow nuns

The Daughters of St Paul don’t just use Snapchat; Sisters Theresa and Jennifer both have active Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram profiles. In August, Sister Theresa went viral on Twitter, gaining nearly 5,000 retweets and 20,000 likes. “Nunchucks are neither related to nuns, nor something you chuck,” the Merriam-Webster dictionary had written on the site. “Speak for yourself,” was Sister Theresa’s viral retort.

“Our founder said to spread the gospel using media, he didn’t just say to speak explicitly about Jesus all the time,” explains Sister Theresa. Still, she didn’t waste the opportunity. After gaining new followers thanks to the funny tweet, she typed out an important message. “Hello, new followers!” she began, “I'm 100% Catholic so chances are I will offend you soon. Jesus ♥s you.” She ended the tweet: “Remember you're going to die. ☠”

Though Sister Theresa likes to remind people of death (“it’s kind of like a call to philosophise”), what is the general purpose of a social media nun? Remarkably few Daughters of St Paul use their posts to proselytize, and many posts are simply about daily life.

“There are a lot of false ideas about cloistered nuns and one way of showing that actually we are really quite normal is being on social media,” says Sister Catherine Wybourne, a 63-year-old Benedictine nun who has over 18,000 followers on her Twitter account @digitalnun. For Sister Catherine, the internet is a great way to speak with distressed people looking for help.

“Lots of people wouldn’t walk into a church or knock on the door of presbyter or vicarage or something like that, and they certainly wouldn't ring the front door bell of a convent or a monastery,” she says. “What we’re trying to do is to welcome people online in exactly the same way we would welcome them into a monastery itself.” On Twitter, people can approach Sister Catherine easily, and she runs a 24/7 email prayer line. “I would say we get 20 or 30 prayer requests a day,” she says. “Quite often, they’re long and complicated. People go on sometimes because they know that it’s safe, we’re not going to talk about anything to anybody.”

Sister Catherine, © Trustees of Holy Trinity Monastery

Yet even holy women aren’t immune from the internet’s dark side. Last year, Sister Catherine’s website was hacked and in the past her pictures have been stolen and edited “unsuitably”. The nun also occasionally has to block trolls. “The worst thing I find is social media has become a lot more aggressive in recent years,” she explains. “It slightly worries me that people will react to headlines or the first paragraph of something, without taking the trouble to read to the end of an article.” Receiving abuse online can be particularly difficult, she laughs, because “nuns are of course never meant to get angry”.

Sister Theresa used to cry at the negative comments she received, but she now also uses the block button when necessary. “People have very extreme reactions to me and it often has nothing to do with me, it’s what I represent.”

In July 2016, Pope Francis announced that nuns should tweet less. “Even with our mission, social media and the internet can be a time-sucker, it can just be a way to waste time,” concedes Sister Theresa, who is careful to ensure her posts stay on track. Still, Sisters Theresa, Jennifer, and Catherine believe there is value in posts that might outwardly seem frivolous – which explains Brother Duncan.

Brother Duncan is a dead dog who dictates his memoirs to Twitter from the safe confines of heaven. “He tweets from beyond the grave,” Sister Catherine laughs, explaining that Duncan was the monastery’s dog who has now been succeeded by Brother Dyfrig.

Recently Brother Dyfrig – a Basset Fauve de Bretagne – managed to steal a milk jug off the table while the nuns were busy in the library, a crime he went on to share on social media. “I was just looking at the dog one day and thinking if you could only speak what could you say to me?” explains Sister Catherine, of the social media accounts.

Brother Dyfrig, © Trustees of Holy Trinity Monastery

It is this type of fun that most social media nuns believe is imperative to their job (“they just remind people that we are human beings in the habit” says Sister Catherine). But what is immediately striking to a new social media follower isn’t how fun these nuns are. What is most unusual is how genuine they act online.

Sister Jennifer, the Snapchat filter-loving nun, admits that she was a “party animal” in her youth before she took her vows. When her old friends began to call her a “Jesus freak”, she says she asked God to help her explain religion to others. “I was drawn particularly to [the Daughters of St Paul] because we use the media to evangelise. St Paul was all about meeting the people where they are, and using the most effective means.”

In the past, Sister Jennifer took to creating Snapchat stories of her daily religious reflections. “When I was doing that, I noticed that I was getting more views each day. There are people out there thirsting for that. Snapchat is all about sharing the moment… so people stop and ponder in that way.” She explains that in the past, older nuns used to do “propaganda”, which meant knocking on peoples doors and talking to them, leaving behind bookmarks emblazoned with spiritual words. “This is what social media is now,” she says.

Sister Jennifer and her fellow nuns

When I ask Sister Theresa if she ever worries about seeming like a try-hard attempting to get “down with the kids” online, she is confused. It is easy to see how social media nuns could act like the cringiest brands, using the latest hashtags and slang to relate to teenagers and attempt to lure them towards religious life. But media nuns aren’t like this at all. “I think our sisters are just real,” Sister Theresa explains. “There's very little facade in what we're doing, or ulterior motives or anything like that. We’re just being real about our faiths and sharing it in a real way.” It is a technique that seems to work, as media nuns now have hundreds of thousands of followers between them.

“I think genuine honesty really resonates with young people,” she adds. “On social media there can be a lot of fakeness, a lot of masks, so I think people respond well to people just being themselves.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Game of Stones: The power struggle at the heart of British curling

Dynasties, scandal and “the curse” behind the scenes of the only Olympic sport you can play while eating pizza.

At the 1980 annual Canadian men’s curling championship, the Calgary competitor Paul Gowsell ordered a pizza mid-play. With tangled red hair down to his shoulders, a thick beard and in his signature plaid trousers, Gowsell – or “Pizza Paul” – had become a cult curling figure in the late Seventies.

“The rebel of the curling world” was known for his drinking and partying on the curling circuit, and rocking up to tournaments – or “bonspiels”, to give them their proper name – in his battered VW van.

Legend has it that a stray olive from his pizza on the ice lost his opponents the game that day.

Since Gowsell’s heyday, curling has professionalised. It became an official Winter Olympics sport in 1998 (the previous and only time it had this status was in 1924), but remains one of the most peculiar competitions of the season.

“We do get made fun of a lot” 

The brooms, frantic brushing, screaming from the “skip” (the captain of the team in charge of strategy), gliding on one knee, and even the equipment itself – 44-pound lumps of granite known as “stones”, which look a bit like old-fashioned irons – make for bizarre watching, as competitors release their stones before the “hogline” in an attempt to reach the “house”: the target at the end of the rink.

The etiquette is to shake hands before a game, and say “good curling”.

Its quirks are not lost on curlers, who appear to embrace the gentle mockery of their sport. The array of outlandish patterned trousers worn by the Norwegian men’s team brought a goofy humour to Pyeongchang (pink hearts for Valentine’s Day were a particular hit), inspiring an entire Facebook page of half a million Likes dedicated to their legwear. Meanwhile, the moustachioed and red-hatted US curler Matt Hamilton has been memed as Mario by his own team.


A veteran curling commentator I speak to, who does not want to be named because he remains closely involved in the sport and wishes to speak frankly, says comedic takes on curling – like the 2010 episode of The Simpsons “Boy Meets Curl”, in which Homer and Marge accidentally discover their innate talent for the game – “generally help promote the sport”.

“People definitely make fun of it! There are a lot of awesome personalities in curling and I think part of it is because we do get made fun of a lot. You kind of have to have a really good sense of humour to curl,” says John Cullen, a 32-year-old Canadian comedian and competitive curler in the world-ranked Team Joanaisse.

Every time the Winter Olympics come along, curling manages to entrance audiences. It’s one of the few sports to be played for the entirety of the Games because of its “round robin” structure (where each country has to play the other, at least once).

Curling benefits from a lot of airtime. Matches can last three hours, and there are mixed doubles as well as separate men’s and women’s tournaments.

But it also captures our imagination because, unlike figure skating or alpine skiing, we feel like anyone could have a go. Curlers don’t all look like athletes. The dedicated viewer can watch them chatting, see their anguished facial expressions – and hear them swear when they mess up.

“You still have people who make the Olympics who’ve got a bit of a belly”

“It has a big appeal for people because it seems – even though it’s not – like a game you could play, if you’re just a regular person watching the Olympics,” says Cullen, who has curled for 20 years. “Every Olympics, people think to themselves, ‘OK, if I started curling tomorrow, I could be in the next Olympics’.”

A bit like darts, he adds: “Curling is a lot more physically demanding than darts, but when you watch darts on TV, you think ‘oh these guys are drinking, they’re not in shape’.

“It seems accessible in a way other sports don’t… Curlers now are more fit than ever, but you still have people who make the Olympics who, yeah, they’ve got a bit of a belly, or they don’t really look like they spend that much time in the gym. They just kind of look like regular people.”

Adding to curling’s relatability, there are two real-life couples in the mixed doubles this year, and you can watch them bicker as they play. Norway’s girlfriend-and-boyfriend outfit Kristin Skaslien and Magnus Nedregotten admit to having heated arguments on the ice (she never sweeps for him, as far as I can tell from watching one of their games – you go, sister), whereas Russia’s wife-and-husband duo Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii have had their bronze medal tarnished by the latter’s suspected doping.

When a doping scandal reaches your sport, you know it’s made it.

***

Traced back to 16th-century Scotland, the sport nicknamed the “Roaring Game” – because of the sound of rolling across ice – was played socially with stones on frozen ponds and lochs by farmers in winter, when no farming could be done.

Competitions between neighbouring communities began in the 18th century, when Rabbie Burns would play and even wrote some poetry about it, and Scots took the game across the country with the arrival of the railways. They later exported it to places as far as North America and New Zealand.

But it took until 2002 for the general public to notice curling in Britain. The Great British women curlers’ unexpected gold at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City transformed attitudes towards the sport – it was the first time Britain had won gold at the Winter Olympics since Torvill and Dean’s Bolero ice dance in 1984 at Sarajevo.

 “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms”

An audience of 5.7 million people watched the tense final live on the BBC, when five previously unknown women from Scotland beat Switzerland with the final throw – since dubbed the “Stone of Destiny” – played by the skip, Rhona Martin.

“It definitely put curling on the map. We used to get wee write-ups in the back of the paper and that was it,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Ayrshire. “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms, and curling your hair, whereas now people see it as a sport because they’re more knowledgeable about the game.”


Rhona Martin delivering the Stone of Destiny. Photo: Getty

A flag-waving crowd greeted her team when they landed in Heathrow – adoration they hadn’t been expecting. They received a congratulatory message from then Prime Minister Tony Blair (“You have captured the imagination of the whole of the UK”), appeared on everything from Lorraine Kelly’s sofa to Ready Steady Cook, were put up at Claridge’s and received MBEs from the Queen, and sat in the royal box at Wimbledon.

Curling fever didn’t last long, however. The women returned to full-time work or being full-time mothers. Talk of a Hollywood movie about their victory died. Two of the five endured intrusive news reports about their marriages breaking down, and Martin (now Howie after a subsequent marriage) was at one point a “single mother living on benefits”, as put by one of her agents.

This became known as the “Curse of the Curlers”, according to the Guardian. Indeed, Howie’s gold medal was stolen from the Dumfries Museum four years ago, never to be recovered.

***

Has the curse on British curling finally been lifted?

Two dynasties of curling champions dominate Team GB this year: the Muirheads and the Smiths. Both are Scottish farming families from Perthshire, both have two or more siblings on the Olympic curling teams, and all the competitors are children of world champions: they grew up on farms about 40 miles apart, and were regulars at their local rink.

“We’re all super-competitive”

The only member of the men’s team who is neither Muirhead nor Smith, Kyle Waddell, comes from another Scottish curling dynasty: his grandfather Jimmy was European curling champion in 1979.

Eve Muirhead, skip of the women’s team, is the current queen of the dominant Muirhead dynasty. The three-time world medallist, now 27, was the youngest ever skip to win a Winter Olympic medal, when her team took bronze at Sochi in 2014. Her brothers Tom and Glen on the men’s team are making their Olympic debut.

The Muirheads’ father Gordon, a sheep farmer, is a world champion who competed at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Eve was inspired to begin curling at the age of nine.


The Muirhead siblings on their farm. Photo: Getty

Kyle Smith, the skip of the men’s team, is head of the curling house of Smith. His younger brother Cammy is on the same team. Their father David, a dairy and potato farmer, was a world champion skip in 1991, and their uncle Peter (known as “Pistol Pete” in the curling world, for his sharp-shooter-like accuracy) represented Team GB at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Known as Team Muirhead and Team Smith, they still help out with their respective families’ farming duties. While training for the Olympics, Kyle Smith fed the calves before going to the gym in the morning or milking at weekends, and the Muirhead brothers combine their sheep farming duties with training (they’re missing the lambing season to be at the Olympics). But Eve – who also plays golf and the bagpipes – prioritises curling practice.


The Smiths and Muirheads playing together. Photo: Getty

The Smiths are trailing the Muirheads medal-wise and see themselves as “the underdogs”, but there’s more rivalry between siblings than between the two families, who often play on the same team.

“I know we’re all super-competitive,” Eve tells me down the line from Pyeongchang. “We all support each other to the bitter end. To have my two brothers here is really special, I guess it makes this Olympics a little bit more special than the other ones.”

Just last season, the Muirhead brothers were on different teams and went head-to-head, competing for the same Olympic spot, which made working together on the farm temporarily tough. They had to check up on each other’s flocks while the other was training to beat them.

“Our local rink has unfortunately now closed down”

“I have learned how to wind him up over the last year so I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” Thomas, the younger Muirhead, quipped at the time. All the Muirhead siblings are so competitive that no board games were allowed at home.

Curling isn’t seen as a “posh” sport, like skiing (although curling clubs have been linked to freemasonry in the past), and it’s likely that such a small pool of talent is down to the sport’s decline rather than a privileged elite.

Eve Muirhead tells me that her “local rink at Pitlochry” – where she played as a child – has “unfortunately now closed down”, and this is part of a trend in Scotland. At curling’s peak in 1993, Scotland had 31 ice rinks which offered curling. The number is now down to 22.

The veteran curling commentator I speak to says the Olympics have benefited the sport’s image, but the money spent on elite competitive curling “to ‘buy’ GB medals” in this country “hasn’t helped grassroots curling much; only a few curlers benefit”.

It’s even starker in countries with no curling legacy. China has just two curling clubs for a population of 1.4 billion and still sends teams to the Olympics. Cullen confirms this, from his experience of international play. “Once curling got us [Canada] in the Olympics, a lot of countries recognised this as an opportunity to get a medal,” he says. “So what they’ve done in some of those cases in China, Japan, Korea, is they’ve found athletes from other sports and converted them into curlers.”

***

But this doesn’t mean curling is easy; it just makes it a more competitive sport. With my only background in curling being an episode of Pingu I watched as a child (he sweeps with his foot, the innovator), I rounded up some colleagues and went to the Sliders Social Fun and Games Club at Queens ice rink in West London to try it out for myself.

The banging beats, disco ball, and giant projected episode of Pointless on a rink-side screen didn’t exactly scream 16th century loch, but we pulled on our studded grippy rubber soles and took to the ice.

While one colleague discovered that she was “actually sick” (her words) at curling, most of us found the stones impossibly heavy and rolled them nowhere near the target.




New Statesman staff curl

The author attempts to curl

After a few failed attempts, I tried a double-handed curl, but that didn’t work at all. One bolder team member developed a special “one-knee thrust” move, which worked quite well.

Even the brushing was quite tough, because you fear falling over at any moment. Some men on the neighbouring rink told us we were “rubbish”.

Essentially, curling is really hard. A lesson that adds to its status as history’s most misunderstood sport. But its players remain dedicated, and audiences engrossed. As Rhona Howie, the master of the “Stone of Destiny”, tells me: “Never, ever give up, and keep fighting, one stone at a time.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.