FROM a small corner of the North-East a group of nuns are spreading healing across the world. The Carmelite sisters, who live in a Darlington convent, have been saying prayers for war victims who are desperately in need of solace.

Thanks to the nuns' knowledge of the world wide web, they have received hundreds of requests for prayers from people of all nationalities who have been able to log on to their website.

The sisters had originally set up a page on CommuniGate to sell the products they make at home, but were surprised to find that they also started receiving appeals for prayers. And it has opened up their eyes to the troubles faced by people across the globe.

Says Sister Francis Rowe: "The Internet has put us in contact with people all over the world. It is easier for them to order goods from us this way, but we have found that the biggest demand is for prayers from people over all sorts of things in many different countries. It has opened up our horizons to the needs of people in war-torn areas."

The nuns logged onto the information superhighway with the help of CommuniGate's Web Editor Alison Nicholson at The Northern Echo.

"I helped them set up the website and now they talk to people all over the world," she says. "The sisters have made contact with Carmelite houses scattered across Europe and speak to them regularly."

CommuniGate has attracted the interest of hundreds of community groups across the region since its launch in September 2000. So far more than 800 community groups have signed up to showcase their services online.

The site allows charities and non-profit making groups to build and manage their own Internet sites free of charge. It has been designed for people who do not have special web-writing skills and aims to help raise their profile and promote fund-raising and other activities. With 100,000 visits per month to all the different sites, CommuniGate's success has exceeded all expectations.

Art groups, charities, sports clubs, pet lovers and children's groups have all been eager to sign up. Even the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, gave the site the thumbs-up when he visited The Northern Echo offices in Darlington.

Web sites range from entire pages dedicated to gerbils, sheepdogs and badgers to sites on religious groups, local bands and visitor attractions.

Quirkier sites include a page dedicated to The Alan Partridge Appreciation Society, which pays homage to Steve Coogan's comic character.

"The groups love CommuniGate," says Alison. "They don't have a lot of money to spend so the fact that they can make a big show and it doesn't cost a bean is a real plus for them. It is also straightforward enough for the average person who doesn't know a lot about computers to use. It is extremely easy to set up. The response has been amazing. It has exceeded everyone's expectations."

Web users wanting to find out about local community groups in their area can log onto The Northern Echo's site and select their home town. Each CommuniGate site has its own unique web address so if viewers know a particular group they are interested in, they can access their web page directly.

The Tees Rowing Club has been one of the most successful sites. They set up a web site with CommuniGate in January this year and have already had more than 6,000 visitors. The club decided to go online to tell rowing enthusiasts more about their services and to let people know what was happening with the sport in general.

"We usually have about 20 hits a day," says publicity officer Chris Kenyon. "We use the site first as a magazine, and secondly as a source of information. It is dead simple to use once you get used to it, and we had help with design of the site."

CommuniGate gives non-profit-making groups a unique opportunity to publicise their activities with as much space on the Internet as they need. Groups can even amend or update information on their web site from their own computers whenever they like.

Chris says: "If people want to know more about rowing, I advise them to look at the website and then come back. It has attracted a lot of people to come to the club and take up the sport. The joy about CommuniGate is that if someone is compute illiterate, they can still actually set up a web site. It's that simple."

The British Korean War Veterans, based in Middlesbrough, jumped at the chance to advertise their group online. They set up a web site with the help of Alison, who assisted on the design and layout of the pages.

Within CommuniGate, groups can create up to ten news and information pages with pictures, add e-mail forwarding, tables, a message board, links page, event calendar and contact details.

Treasurer of the veterans, Derek Slasor says: " We have been very impressed with what has been done. We had a lot of input into how we wanted it to look. We had always thought about having a web page but never got around to it and I don't think we would have, because of the technical aspects of it. We wouldn't have been able to do it without the help of The Northern Echo. It has been nothing short of brilliant.

"Our members love the site. It gives them a lift to know that they are on there. There are different sections for war veterans all over the world and we are linked up with them. I think it is a great idea that community groups from all over the region are on CommuniGate. People who are not necessarily looking for a particular site can go on there and find all the sites in the region in a particular subject area that they are interested in."

Groups who have made extra effort with their web sites have the chance to win Pick Of The Month, a regular feature on CommuniGate. Winners of the best site are rewarded with a special prize for their hard work and creativity. Past prizes have included a computer software system and the successful site is also highlighted on the CommuniGate front page for a month, giving groups extra exposure.

As well as sports and social clubs, health groups have also been keen to sign up to spread the word about a variety of health issues.

Pamela Crawford of the Richmondshire Alzheimers Society says: "We have been online for a couple of months and are very excited about it.

"Our committee is very pleased. For a lot of them it took a while to get used to, because they are middle-aged women and many do not know about computers, but they are all very pleased about it now. It is a great way for us to promote our service."

For groups like the Carmelite nuns, CommuniGate has not only allowed them to make new friends - it has opened up a whole new world.


If you would like to set up a web site with CommuniGate contact Alison Nicholson on 01325 505270 or at community


The Tees Rowing club:

The British Korean War Veterans:

Richmondshire Alzheimers Society:

Carmelite Nuns