When Allen Alexander wanted to pursue his calling to the priesthood, which he had since he was a child, he was faced with a major obstacle: Even though he received some scholarship assistance and worked while at Franciscan University of Steubenville, he still had thousands of dollars of school debt to pay off before the congregation he applied to would let him enter.
When Amy Turner went on an Ignatian retreat while working at a Boston hospital and had plans to study to be a nurse, she realized “God gave me the desire for a vocation, and that was what I had to respond to.” But she still was paying off debt from the University of Dallas.
Augustine DeArmond felt the call to religious life and the priesthood, but he too was still whittling down college debt, even though he had started teaching. Accepted by the Dominicans, he said, “As with most religious communities today, our province asked me to handle most of the debt before coming into formation.”
Faced with the same dilemma, each turned for help to the Labouré Society (LaboureSociety.org). Since 2001, the Labouré Society has blossomed into a lay apostolate that has already helped more than 220 individuals resolve their financial debt to enter religious life and who are now ordained, professed or in formation.
Brother Alexander was able to take his first vows in 2010 and begin studies for the priesthood with the Congregation of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception. Brother DeArmond professed simple vows in 2008 with the Dominicans, who sent him to study this year with their Blackfriars in England. Today, Turner is Sister Louise Marie, a novice with the Sisters of Saint Benedict Center, Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Still River, Mass.
In the past few years Cy Laurent, founder and director of the Labouré Society — although he considers himself only the humble servant of the real founder (the Holy Spirit) — is busier than ever.
Having started this project from his home as a hobby, a year and a half ago Laurent moved into an office in Eagan, Minn., and now has two assistants. Praying about the move, he bumped into a man whose name kept coming to him in prayer. When Laurent explained the situation, the gentleman gave him an office with a free five-year lease.
“This is why you listen to the Holy Spirit,” Laurent said.
“There’s a real urgency here,” he added. He pointed out there are up to 10,000 discerners in the United States courageous enough to consider priesthood and religious life. “We must deliver these vocations to the Church.”
But the problem is: 99% of them who have gone through interviews and been tested and are qualified by vocation directors, bishops and religious communities have educational debt that averages $40,000 just for an undergraduate degree.
“The only thing that prevents them entering formation is this debt,” Laurent emphasized. In comes the society, which helps raise money to pay off this debt. “It’s a monumental task the Church can’t answer. They don’t have the money. Laypersons must respond to this.”
Over the years, Laurent, formerly a Minnesota businessman, has tweaked the process to benefit both aspirants and donors. He works with small groups, around 10 of them, at once. They develop a campaign, and Laurent motivates and counsels them. They pray together. The board decides how and when the funds are distributed to the members. Because the society is a 501c3 nonprofit corporation, donors receive tax benefits. That applies to family and friends who donate, too.
Brother DeArmond reminds people they don’t have to know anyone personally to help someone enter religious life. By donating to the Labouré Society, they help anyone called to religious life but without means to enter because of debt. There are anonymous donors.
The board of directors makes grants against the debts of aspirants in a staged way in case someone leaves during discernment. For instance, payment on debt comes in steps, like entering as a candidate, first profession to postulant, then novice. Any remaining debt is eliminated at final vows or ordination.
Sister Catherine Marie of the Holy Trinity looks fondly upon the Labouré Society. In February 2011 she took her final vows with the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles. Laurent was present.
“It was incredible to have him there and witness all that had happened since the beginning when I was first thinking about religious life,” said Sister Catherine Marie, one of the first aspirants who was helped by the society.
She had been working jobs during her school years and summers to pay her school debt, then happened to meet Laurent.
“It was really clear to me it was totally sound and a good thing he was doing,” she explained. “The people would know what they’re giving their money to.”
It was difficult to ask for money, but Laurent made the process blessed and easy, she said. Along with help from her friends, the Labouré Society paid off her final debt.
Laurent credits her with helping to confirm the name for the society. He well remembers first meeting her: “She was walking toward me, and the sun was shining on her Miraculous Medal pin.”
Before that, the first woman he helped was also wearing a Miraculous Medal pendant. Because both of these women were wearing the Miraculous Medal that our Blessed Mother gave to St. Catherine Labouré, Laurent chose the saint as the society’s patron.
Patrons of another sort now come from across the country in the form of vocation directors and bishops’ endorsements.
“We are so grateful to the Labouré Society for assisting some of the women in application with us,” said Sister Antoniana Maria, vocation director for The Sisters of Life. “They provide a great service to the Church to allow the opportunity to follow God’s call.” In September, a new postulant entered thanks to help from the society.
Those helped see added advantages.
Sister Louise Marie said the society was a “third party” endorsement: giving her greater credibility to people she was asking for help. And the prayers and encouragement she received from the society remain priceless.
“Mr. Laurent had such joy in my vocation that it increased my own understanding of what a wondrous thing it is to be called to be the bride of Christ,” she said. “I’m glad to know he’s going to be praying for me forever.”
Brother Alexander can’t help but see “the love Cy Laurent and others who work for him have and their commitment to help young men and women struggling (to pursue their vocation).”
“Cy Laurent is one of the most enthusiastic people I’ve met,” Sister Catherine Marie said, “and so in line with the mission of the Church and the message of our Holy Father Pope Benedict and John Paul II before him about vocations to the priesthood and religious life.”
What is one of Laurent’s biggest motivating factors that should inspire donors?
“To think about the importance of one vocation,” he emphasized. “Priests and religious today are making an unbelievably important impact on members of society.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.