Editor's note: This story was updated on July 30.
When she was 5 years old, Sarah Meier wanted to become a nun.
She wanted to enter a convent under a vow of silence and pray for the world.
What prompted this dream? She was awestruck after admiring the nuns who taught her and her identical twin sister, Monica, at a Catholic school in Rhinelander, Wis.
“I loved Jesus, and I loved the nuns who were teaching. … They were just very kind, and they loved God,” she recalled. “They had a very devout life and served God in all they did.”
“That was the very first thing I can remember I wanted to be. Then I don’t know what happened,” Meier said with a laugh, explaining how she ended up pursuing a few graduate degrees in the sciences, including a doctorate in physical therapy.
But, during her second year as a graduate student, tragedy struck: Monica, a smart and talented pediatrician, tragically died from suicide.
“When Monica died, that brought some really big questions about faith and God [into my life],” Meier said. “And working through that grief really strengthened my relationship with God and really deepened my faith. So that was really transformative in my life.”
Armed with a renewal of faith, Meier moved to Denver to complete her final clinical rotation before graduation.
After graduating, she was unable to find a physical therapy position. But she worked her way up to noteworthy positions in several companies.
“I was devastated about the physical therapy [not working out]. But, at the same time, if I had remained in physical therapy and gotten a full-time job, I would have never found my vocational calling — because I would have defined myself as a physical therapist.”
It was at this time that Meier’s faith began to flourish in a deeper way. “Three years ago, my hunger for God was insatiable. I was going to daily Mass, adoration, reading the Bible cover to cover, reading all these books about saints and prayed an hour in the morning and in the afternoon.”
And that led to a pivotal prayer: “One afternoon, in conservation with God, I basically just surrendered. I said, ‘God, everything I am is yours. I asked him, ‘I don’t know what it is that you want me to do. So, please, tell me, because I don’t get it.’”
God didn’t hesitate to reply.
“The response I got was: ’Pray; pray for my people.’ That brought me back to when I was 5 years old, and I wanted to be praying for the world. And so, that is when I started looking into religious life.”
After researching and talking with several communities, Meier knew her path: “It was immediately clear that I wanted a contemplative, cloistered monastery.”
Path to the Poor Clares
She met her match with Bethlehem Monastery of the Poor Clares in Barhamsville, Va., where the sisters live a life of penance and intercede for the salvation of souls. They undertake a path to perfection not so they are perfect, “but so they pray perfectly for the intercession of others,” Meier explained.
There was only one thing that stood in the way of Meier’s vocation — her large student debt. She had to be debt-free to enter any convent. And, with a debt of about $265,000, she would have to work a long time to pay that off, delaying her vocation.
That’s when she heard about the Labouré Society (LaboureSociety.org) — a Catholic 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that exists solely to help those who aspire to enter religious life but are unable to do so due to student loans.
After cashing in her retirement savings and a personal donation from her parents, Meier paid off her highest interest loans, worth $55,000. She even found a free room from a generous woman at her parish, in order to save on rent.
But that still was not enough.
Meier’s plight is not unique. In fact, it’s a very common problem.
“The problem is that 42% [of those seeking to enter religious life] are unable to enter formation because of educational loans. In our experience, there is an average of $45,000 [worth of student debt],” said Cy Laurent, who founded the Labouré Society with his wife, Evelyn.
Laurent became aware of this pervasive crisis after helping two women fundraise to pay off their student debts so that they could enter religious life. That was back in 2001.
Laurent recollects the time he visited Margaret, one of those women he aided in paying off her debt, when she was a member of the Dominican Sisters of Milwaukee: “I wasn’t sure whether her feet were on the ground because she had so much joy. The joy was so palpable I could never forget it.”
From a Hobby Helping Vocations to a National Society
As more aspirants came his way, he started to help them as a hobby, on nights and weekends. “The hobby became more and more full time — until now, it is full time. Five years ago, we got a real office and modest staff [of only three full-time people.]”
The organization is named after St. Catherine Labouré, who received a request from the Blessed Virgin Mary to create the Miraculous Medal — due to the Miraculous Medals that the two women he first helped wore.
The Labouré Society is now approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and will be listed in the next publication of The Official Catholic Directory. It is the only organization that can help aspirants most often with larger debts.
Laurent, who has 23 years of experience working for Fortune 500 companies and another 30 years as a successful entrepreneur, has devised Labouré in such a way so that every donation always goes to support an active vocation.
Aiding Aspirants, Sharing Their Joy
In order to enter Labouré’s current “class” of aspirants, an individual has to have already been accepted by a community and have no other outstanding debt.
Class members are taught to fundraise for vocations instead of themselves, are paired with an accountability partner they meet with on a weekly basis and follow a rigorous schedule. At the conclusion of each class, Labouré allocates funds using a merit-based system that takes into account effort, success and need. Many times, aspirants fundraise while working full time at their day jobs. In Meier’s case, that meant often working 80 hours each week.
But all of the funds are not awarded to the individual right away. Once aspirants enter the discernment phase at their religious communities, funds are held in escrow for three years. Each month, only the minimum loan payments are made. If an aspirant discerns that the community is not for him or her, he or she assumes loan repayment responsibility.
The organization is bearing much fruit: With Labouré’s aid, 257 men and women have entered religious life.
“We are fueled on joy — when you help a sister, brother or priest, you become a part of their vocation,” Laurent likes to say.
Currently serving 30-40 aspirants year, Laurent hopes to be able to serve 100-150 every year six years from now.
Aspirants such as Laryn Kovalik, accepted at Verbum Dei and a member of Labouré’s most recent class, now have the ability to pursue vocations.
“I wouldn’t have had a fighting chance to answer what I perceive is my call without the Labouré Society,” Kovalik said. “We have said ‘Yes’ to commit our lives completely to the Church. But because of the student-loan situation, being able to embrace a religious or priestly vocation today requires a communal ‘Yes.’”
Labouré’s most recent class of eight individuals raised a total of $500,000 over six months, and Meier finally has enough funding to cover her student loans.
Meier, who enters the Poor Clares on July 22, has given others hope that student loans no longer pose a barrier to religious vocations.
“People have just been very generous,” she explained. “It has really been a walking miracle for the past six months. I would have not been able to become a nun without it. It’s incredible — but that’s God.”
Emily Brandenburg writes from Orange, California.