WEST HARTFORD – Members of St. Peter Claver Parish are connecting to their church and to each other in ways some might call miraculous. It is the first parish in the Archdiocese of Hartford to implement a private interactive social network.
Greg O’Connell, who chairs the parish technology committee, explained the interactive network to the Parish Council and ministry leaders at an introductory meeting last fall. Parish representatives also described St. Peter Claver’s use of technology at the 2011 Priests’ Convocation in November, which focused on new approaches to evangelization.
"It’s a place on the Internet; but it’s a private space just for parishioners, staff and clergy. These are the only people who will be able to enter and use this space," Mr. O'Connell said recently. The parish purchased specialized software in order to create the social networking space.
St. Peter Claver has a public parish home page that, according to Gigi Frailey, pastoral associate, "the whole world can see."
"But, when you enter the parish social networking space, which they call Connected Community, you are in a whole different space. To see content within the Connected Community, you must be logged in and registered as a member of the community," she said.
"The Connected Community portion contains a lot of interactive features and different resources that are going to help us and help our parishioners learn more about what’s going on in the church and how to get involved in the church and its ministries. [They will learn] how to develop their spiritual life and how to contribute their time and resources to our parish," said Mr. O’Connell.
Each adult parishioner has his or her own home page or profile within the community, and may choose to enter information they want to share about themselves, such as contact information, a photo and their interests both inside and outside the parish.
"In addition, each of our ministries will also have a home page with information that is in addition to what is shared on the public Web site," said Mr. O’Connell.
"Another really terrific feature will be the online library. This is a file-sharing and file-organizing system," he said. "I like to think of it as an online bookshelf that parishioners can browse.
"[It will contain] photo albums of St. Peter Claver events, articles that parishioners think are [informative] or worthwhile and even personal reflections that [they] want to share.
"The great thing about this library is that parishioners will be able to make their own contributions to the bookshelf. It will be by, and for, parishioners; it will have information that they find interesting, inspirational or fun," said Mr. O’Connell. He described the interactive private social network as an important tool to help more people connect with the parish community and foster participation.
"It’s a centralized place that will be open 24/7 where they can see all the information they need about St. Peter Claver Church, about events that are going on and about what different ministries are doing.
"It’s a place where parishioners can go from their living room, or from Starbucks, or wherever they use the Internet," said Mr. O’Connell. "The bottom line is that the Connected Community [network] allows us to be more connected, more informed and more involved."
Log-on information was distributed to parishioners in November. While not everyone has logged on and completed his or her profile, those who have are delighted.
"I just think the whole thing is great," said Peggy Stewart, a Parish Council member who joined the parish when she moved to West Hartford last year. "It’s a centralized resource that I use on a daily basis.
"I’ve already made it my home page, so every morning I’m greeted with that. It kind of grounds me a little bit before I launch into my day. I can check to see if there’s an event going on or remind myself to look up a saint of the day, or a prayer or something else I’ve been thinking about," she said. "I also look at Facebook and Twitter feeds that are posted on the Community page."
When Ms. Stewart completed her profile within the private social network, she expressed her interest in photography.
"There were a couple of other people who were also interested in photography and we kind of joined together and became the photographers for the parish," she said. "We collect photos of events and things that are going on and share them with folks who are posting them on Facebook and sharing them with the larger Connected Community site..
"I don’t think I would have thought of doing something like this on my own," she said. "So I think it’s a neat way to connect with other parishioners who have similar interests and help come up with something worthwhile [for the parish].
"I’m just really impressed that [the church] is taking the time to use their resources to put this together because I think it is very, very powerful," said Ms. Stewart.
Other parishioners also appreciate the Connected Community space.
"It’s a great way to get to know other parishioners much better," said Jean-Michel Sibille, who is a lector and choir member at St. Peter Claver. "One feature of the Web site that I really appreciate is that it gives people a venue to express themselves. There is a section where you can set up a blog or start a discussion string. It’s a good way to express your feelings and thoughts or anything that you want to share.
"I think it’s a little bit slow to start and I think people may be a little intimidated or overwhelmed by all that’s available," said Mr. Sibille. "But I think that once you get familiar with the site and how to find things, the more you will go in and look, and the more you’ll find possibilities. It gets easier as you use it and figure out how it works.
"I think I was among the first to use it. I started setting up the profile but it’s not complete. I’m a very private person and I’m trying to put out there what is relevant to the religious community," said Mr. Sibille, who entered his education information because he studied at a seminary in France. He also entered his interest in the choir.
Parish ministries are getting accustomed to using the Connected Community to communicate with members.
The parish music ministry, which provided recorded music for children who were to perform in the annual Christmas concert. Through the Connected Community, parents were able to access the music, help the children learn the songs and practice with them for the concert. The music could be played online, written to a CD or loaded onto a music player.
In prior years, the parish made CDs of the music. This year, the parish saved time and the expense of creating and distributing CDs to approximately 70 children who participated in the concert, said Ms. Frailey.