When Danielle Lussier of Battle Creek, Mich., was taking out loans to pay for her photography degree at the Rhode Island School of Design, she didn’t anticipate that God would call her to a "reversion," a deeper life within the Catholic Church.
Nor did she foresee that she’d discern a call to the religious life with the Daughters of St. Paul in Jamaica Plain, Mass., that would necessitate paying off her school debt more quickly.
"When I signed my promissory note, I did not configure in my ‘reversion’ experience," she said. "I thought, I have a 30-year plan here."
Seeking freedom from educational debt so they can pursue their vocations, Lussier and 16 others who have discerned a call to the priesthood or religious life gathered Jan. 10-13 in the Twin Cities for the Labouré Society’s "boot camp": an intense weekend of training, spiritual support and hands-on preparation to take on the challenge of raising funds to pay off their loans.
Since 2003, the Eagan, Minn.-based Labouré Society (LaboureSociety.org) has equipped 230 "aspirants" — who were accepted into a diocese or religious community but blocked from entering or continuing formation because of educational debt — to resolve their debt through faith-based philanthropy.
On Friday afternoon of boot camp, Lussier and the rest of the class learned about professional fundraising techniques. Organizers believe these skills — along with an understanding of fundraising as ministry — are precisely what will help aspirants prepare financially, spiritually and mentally for their vocations.
"‘Boot camp’ denotes something very specific: a hard training in a short period of time, changing people, equipping people," said Cy Laurent, founder and executive director of the Labouré Society, which is named for St. Catherine Labouré and the Miraculous Medal.
Lussier and her classmates hold undergraduate and advanced degrees from a range of U.S. colleges and universities — and a total of $839,000 in educational debt. Working individually but also supporting each other as a team, each "aspirant" seeks to raise $45,000 toward paying off the loans in the next five months.
Each team raises an aggregate amount under the society’s 501c3 nonprofit status, so donations are tax-deductible. The society manages loan payments while aspirants are in formation and completes payments in steps by ordination or vows in case someone leaves during formation.
The class isn’t unusual. An estimated 10,000 young people in the U.S. have discerned a vocation, but 42% are blocked from entering by educational loans, according to a 2010 National Religious Vocation Conference study. The average Labouré Society aspirant owes $40,000 in loans plus interest for an undergraduate degree, Laurent said.
Katie Clemmer of Manassas, Va., believes the debt is so common that "it’s really the face of the young Church that wants to be religious." Clemmer, who has undergraduate and graduate education degrees, is in her second aspirant class. She is in formation at the Immaculate Heart of Mary community in Immaculata, Pa. "God wants me here, and he knows I have debt, so what does he want me to do with it?"
Aidan Toombs of Redwood City, Calif., also has found peace in his call to be a contemplative priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey in Pecos, N.M., but, as a practicing attorney with a law degree from Georgetown University and lot of educational debt, he has faced difficulty getting there.
Debt is "a very concrete, large obstacle to entering religious life," said Kit O’Brien, operations director for the Institute on Religious Life in Libertyville, Ill., which supports the consecrated life. The Labouré Society, she added, "equips aspirants to work on their own and raise funds to solve their student-debt problems. I don’t know another organization that does it like this."
On Friday night, the aspirants drafted a class mission statement in the spirit of camaraderie. Organizers introduced former participant Megan Spelic of Broomfield, Colo., and announced that she officially paid off her loans, having raised about $47,000 during the last half of 2012. The class cheered for the Benedictine College senior who plans to enter formation with the Little Sisters of the Poor in Washington this fall.
The society also has had an impact on Tim Bastian of Omaha, Neb. Now a board member and presenter, Bastian learned about the society when his daughter went through the program last year before entering the Carmel of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Valparaiso, Neb.
An investment adviser and lecturer at Creighton University, he sees boot-camp training not just in terms of sales skills, but relationship skills.
The relational fundraising skills aspirants acquire also benefit their communities or dioceses, Laurent said: "Whether a diocesan priest, religious priest or sister or brother, every one of those institutions is a fundraising business, parish, diocese, community, and some of them are mendicant."
Ana Rodriguez of Sacramento, Calif., anticipates that the fundraising may impact her life with the Missionary Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo, Scalabrinians, in Melrose Park, Ill. "If we can’t take on this task, no matter how challenging it is, if we are not disciplined and focused and we don’t persevere, we’re not grounded in our prayer doing this exercise of fundraising, it just kind of says: How effective are we going to be as a religious?"
As challenging as it is to ask for funds, aspirants actually give potential donors an opportunity to join their vocational journeys, Laurent said.
Lussier said aspirants will be asking, "Are you who the Lord has asked to fill this need? In doing so, we are meeting people and receiving them as we receive the gift of their generosity. It’s really changed the way I see my debt and how I am to take responsibility for my debt."
Clemmer added, "What we’re being called to do is much more than asking for money. We’re being called to really look into other people’s hearts and share our hearts with them and say, ‘We both have this love for the Church. Can we do something together here?’"
On Saturday afternoon, the aspirants practiced sharing their vocation stories — to be videotaped and posted on YouTube.
Toni Garrett of Grand Prairie, Texas, who returned for a second aspirant class and is in formation with the Community Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth of Grand Prairie, delivered her testimony, adding this invitation to potential supporters: "We want you to be part of our vocations. They were never only ours; they always belonged to the Church."
Being part of the Church means embracing all the steps in a vocational journey, Laurent said. "Their journey, like yours and like mine, is a journey back to him, and there’s no journey back to him except through the cross," he said. "That’s part of fundraising — suffering, paying the price, doing it with a joyful heart, celebrating, even. We know where we’re going."
Susan Klemond writes from
St. Paul, Minnesota.