Restoring the Sacred, One Documentary at a Time

StoryTel Inspires Through Film


Don Carney’s career in show business began when his high-school choir director caught him belting out a tune from My Fair Lady in the hall between classes. After accepting a theater scholarship to a local Kansas City college and forming his own comedy act, Carney headed to California to “make it big.”

Rather than being “discovered” by Hollywood, however, the former Catholic found himself pursued by God instead.

As Carney left the destructive lifestyle typical of the entertainment industry and started a journey back to the Church, he produced films for the California correctional system and prayed for a full-time venue to use his talents for God’s glory. In the meantime, he used his spare time to create videos for organizations such as Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart in Los Angeles and the Pro-Life Action League.

In 2008, Carney’s dream became reality when he and his brother Chris founded StoryTel, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to “exploring and restoring the sacred” through film-quality Web clips and full-length documentaries.

“Our films explore how extraordinary things happen when ordinary people answer God’s call to collaborate with him,” Carney said.

StoryTel’s latest production — Miles Christi: Soldiers of Christ in America — aired in November on EWTN. The hour-long documentary chronicles the work of Miles Christi, a young Argentinian order of priests dedicated to helping the laity grow in holiness through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

StoryTel’s other projects include a series of short clips on vocational discernment as well as full-length features on the rebirth of St. John Cantius Church in Chicago and St. Peter’s Church in Omaha, Neb. — both inner-city parishes revived by faithful priests after falling into extreme disrepair.

Not all of StoryTel’s programs are Catholic, however. One documentary features Salem Christian School in Chicago, an evangelical grade school struggling to make ends meet and to provide a quality education to its low-income students.

“You don’t have to be ‘Catholic’ to restore the sacred,” Carney said. “A sense of the sacred would be ethics in business, being honest, showing integrity and reverence for our [nation’s] founders. We’d like to be able to tell any [good] story.”

As such, Carney said he intentionally chose a nonreligious name for the media foundation.

“Why shut the doors to the viewing audience who would not be interested in the religious before we even get started?” Carney said. “We want to keep the doors as wide as we possibly can. Then, when we start talking about theology, maybe they’ll be drawn in.”

In the St. John Cantius project, for example, Carney said the first half of the film primarily highlights a problem with pigeons in the attic, along with the buckling floor and extreme summer heat. Only as the story progresses do viewers learn about the Catholic liturgy.

The key is relating true stories, said Phil Halpin, StoryTel’s editor and producer.

“Documentary filmmaking is such a great way of presenting the truth in a logical manner that’s almost indisputable,” Halpin said. “I see the documentary as a method of argument almost. It’s a chance to, in a very methodical way, lay out something you think is true and prove it.”

Referring to a presentation by media-savvy Father Robert Barron of Word on Fire Ministries, Halpin said that people tend to come to the truth through beauty.

“People are first drawn to something beautiful,” Halpin said. “By spending time with the beautiful, the progression is: ‘Oh, that is good.’ Then they want to be a part of it, and they find the truth.”

In response, Halpin said he and his team at StoryTel are “passionate about making beautiful and entertaining films.”

On the StoryTel website, the foundation claims to strive for “Discovery Channel quality” in its work.

“High-quality production is part of evangelization,” Halpin said. “When people see something hokey on TV ... not only are they not engaged, they might be repulsed by it. You’re not going to evangelize anybody with crummy production work.”

For Carney, the “battle for quality” is worth the effort and the financial cost.

“When you are producing something for the TV screen, you are producing something that will be — whether you like it or not — in competition with everything that viewer has ever seen on that screen,” he said. “If the viewer is thinking about your production quality (mistakes, faux pas and bad lighting) instead of what you’re saying to them, then you’re losing the battle.”

According to Carney, the ultimate goal is to inspire the viewer to take action.

“We’d like to give people all over the country the true feeling that there are really cool things happening,” Carney said. “Why don’t we all get on board and give God a little more reverence and restore the sacred in a million ways?”

Halpin agreed.

“Giving people hope is a worthy goal, but going beyond that to inspire people to restore the sacred in their own lives and their own communities makes it worthwhile,” he said.

Halpin noted that featured organizations often use StoryTel’s media materials in their own fundraising efforts, but StoryTel is not hired or paid by its subjects. The Miles Christi film, for example, is not an advertisement recruiting people for retreats per se.

StoryTel does, however, aspire to persuade viewers through this particular documentary to set aside more time for silence in their own lives and to realize what God is calling them to do, Halpin said.

“Maybe watching our films will give them the courage to take a stab at it [getting closer to God],” he said.

Father Damien Cook — whose Omaha parish was featured in StoryTel’s 2012 documentary Where Heaven Meets Earth — has witnessed this “ripple effect” in action. This documentary will re-air on EWTN March 24 at 3am and 6:30pm Eastern.

“Because of the showings nationally and internationally [on EWTN], people are touched by what our parish is doing, to the point of contacting us,” he said. “We’ve had people from the U.K., Australia and, certainly, throughout the States, asking how they can do what we’re doing” and requesting prayers.

“We still get [letters and phone calls] to this day,” Father Cook said.  “It has been very humbling.”

Carney called StoryTel productions a “win for everyone.” The featured people and organizations gain visibility and support; nonprofit media outlets receive high-quality programming; and viewers are entertained, educated and inspired to “restore the sacred” in their own lives, families, churches, communities and country.

“By inspiring people to grow closer to God in their daily lives, we are using media in all its forms to save souls for heaven and revitalize our country — one viewer at a time.”

Now, that’s what it really means to “make it big.”

Kimberly Jansen writes from Lincoln, Nebraska.