It was nearly a decade ago that Minnesota businessman Cy Laurent found himself offering career advice to not one, but two, young Catholics in a unique bind. Both believed God was calling them to a religious vocation, and both felt thwarted from pursuing their discernment. Their obstacle: debt, mostly in the form of student loans.

Drawing on his business acumen and entrepreneurial expertise, Laurent helped the two women deal with the worldly problem so they could focus on their spiritual pursuits.

“With these two experiences I finally got it,” says Laurent, who had been praying for vocations all of his adult life. “The Lord gave me the opportunity to see the full scope of the need. We found not a few but hundreds like them in North America.”

Indeed, many dioceses and religious orders require vocational candidates to be debt-free before entering formation. In most cases, the dioceses and orders aren’t able to cover the debt themselves.

Not long after realizing this missed opportunity for the Church, Laurent founded the Eagan, Minn.-based Laboure Society. Its purpose: to assist aspirants to priesthood or consecrated life who find themselves unable to answer their call due to personal debt.

The choice of name and patron saint was easy, recalls Laurent, now the organization’s executive director. Both those first two women were wearing a Miraculous Medal, the sacramental given to St. Catherine Laboure by the Blessed Mother in the 19th century. (The Church celebrates St. Catherine’s feast on Nov. 25.)

“I don’t think there’s ever been a greater need for priests and strong religious, given the society and culture we live in,” says Laurent. “The prayers we’ve been praying as a Church for vocations is the good news. The bad news is that all these wonderful people discerning a vocation can’t enter religious life because they have debt.”

Sister Amelia Hueller took her first vows with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, Tenn., this summer. She graduated in 2003 — but even with academic and athletic scholarships, along with a job, she could not avoid borrowing money to pay for college. She worked two years to cut her obligation in half.

“I had no idea religious life would be in my future,” she says, “but I realized God was calling me to this life.” Her parish priest directed her to the Laboure Society.

Her success story is one of many. After graduating from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, in 2004, Michael LeFever managed to pay off more than a third of his educational debt while teaching religion in a Catholic high school in Virginia. But the final third remained — and he felt called to join the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. The friars suggested the Laboure Society.

LeFever began formation this September.

More Than Money

The typical education debt Laurent sees is around $30,000. And it’s not unusual, he points out, for young people to carry some credit card debt on top of that. As shown by the current financial crisis shaking America to its core, “We as a nation have encouraged, through the federal government and financial institutions, to go to college on a credit card,” says Laurent. “Then if you discover you have a vocation, you’re up a creek.”

The Laboure Society can help with the paddling.

“Student debt among those with vocations is a bigger problem than most realize,” says Sister Mary Gabriel, vocation director of the Sisters of Life in New York City. She appreciates how Laurent uses his particular gifts, fueled by his love of the Church and religious life, to help those struggling with student debt follow their call. “A good number of our aspirants have been assisted by the Laboure Society,” she says, “and have found Cy to be a wonderful fund-raising coach as well as a needed voice of encouragement.”

“We do not have funds to make grants,” explains Laurent. The candidate must raise the funds. “I help them develop the campaign, motivate them, counsel, support — and we pray together.” Donors send their contributions to the Laboure Society, a nonprofit foundation, which directly pays down the debts. The donors can get tax deductions this way.

Sister Amelia found Laurent’s method worked well for her. “He was reassuring and wonderful, helping me and giving me such encouragement, support and prayer,” she says.

With his guidance, she submitted letters explaining her vocation story to parishes, church groups and friends. “I was very focused on this,” she says. “If it’s God’s will, let me do my best to work as hard as I can.”

It took her a little longer than she thought it would to raise the money, but she believes the Lord wanted to teach her trust and patience. She and Laurent worked together five months, then an anonymous donor paid off the remaining balance.

“Cy knows the best way to go about this,” says LeFever. “You start with an hour of adoration, then write your vocation story.” He sent letters to his former students and their families, along with college friends and his own family. “No doubt Cy is doing the Lord’s work,” says LeFever. “He’s so reassuring.”

Says Sister Amelia, “I think of him as a spiritual father in many ways.”

Great Returns

To qualify for Laboure Society assistance, applicants submit a statement from a bishop, abbot or vocation director affirming they are truly discerning a vocation and have the appropriate qualifications. Out of the nearly 200 applicants who are currently being helped or who have been helped since 2001, only three have left the religious discernment process.

With help from the Laboure Society, Sister Maria Catherine Flicker entered the Little Sisters of the Poor in 2007. She made her first vows earlier this year. “It was understood I was going to enter the congregation once I finished college and paid off my debt,” she explains.

“Cy is very dedicated to the society, to vocations, to service in the Church,” adds Sister Maria Catherine. “His whole life speaks of that.”

Because the organization can’t do everything on its own for every aspirant in need, it welcomes general donations.

“I call it an eternal return-on-investment opportunity,” says Laurent. “These vocations will be praying for us, the benefactors, forever.”

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is

based in Trumbull, Connecticut.

INFORMATION (651) 340-7060