Untold numbers of young men and women saddled with college debt can’t follow their calling into religious life. But some have found a way. Thanks to the Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations, they are in formation today in such orders as the Sisters of Life, Nashville Dominicans, Passionist Nuns of St. Joseph, Benedictines of Mary Queen of Apostles and the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.
Although Corey and Katherine Huber had an interest in religious life, they didn’t set out to solve a problem when they founded the Mater Ecclesiae Fund. It happened providentially. With Corey’s retirement from America Online, they had set up the Fraser Family Foundation for private charitable works for the Church. Their pastor at St. John the Beloved in McLean, Ga., Father Edward Hathaway, asked if they could help a man in California who wanted to enter the Norbertines but was being held back by $40,000 in student loans.
“Most orders don’t let you come into the door with debt,” explains Corey. Candidates have to be debt free because the orders are too poor to pick up the big tabs. Under Interval Revenue Service rules, the Hubers’ foundation was unable to write checks to individuals, but the couple guaranteed the money for that religious hopeful. They quickly tailored a program according to IRS guidelines to help similarly intentioned individuals — and then learned the man had entered the Norbertines only to leave after six weeks.
“We were all dressed up with no place to go, nobody to give the money to,” chuckles Corey. Three months later, at a diocesan vocations dinner, he told the story to a seminarian. The young man knew a young woman in the same boat: order-approved, but not debt free. Now the Hubers had someone to help.
By November 2006, the Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations was born and IRS-approved for nonprofit status. It’s endorsed by such Church luminaries as Archbishop Raymond Burke, prefect of the Apostolic Signatura (the Vatican’s highest court), and Father Benedict Groeschel, founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.
“This is the way God has given us to participate in these young people’s vocations,” says Katherine. Turning to the program’s design, she adds, “We look at it as a conspiracy between the Holy Spirit and the Internal Revenue Service.”
The Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations doesn’t pay the whole debt off upfront for qualified candidates. Instead, it takes over responsibility, making payments as they come due. The debt remains in the candidate’s name. On the fifth anniversary of final vows, Mater Ecclesiae retires the entire debt for them. If, during the course of formation, a candidate leaves his or her community, he or she just resumes the payments from that point on.
Another safeguard: The fund only considers candidates who already have an acceptance statement from a religious community. The only barrier between them and the road to vows is their debt.
That’s when the Hubers enter the picture.
“They mean hope,” says Dominican Father Andrew-Carl Wisdom of the Province of St. Albert the Great in Chicago. “There’s nothing worse than when a vocation director gets a mature vocation but he has debt. Successful students will have debt. They’re like angels sent to us vocation directors. To allow debt to get in the way of a vocation kills us. When you get someone really good, you want to make sure they follow up while the Lord has their attention.”
Because of the fund, Sister Rosaria was able to enter the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecelia in Nashville, Tenn., without delay in August 2004. She was one of the very first candidates the Hubers helped. When her vocation director called in July to ask her if she would be able to enter on schedule, Sister Rosaria told her, “I know God will provide,” even though she still had $9,000 to clear in a month. An hour later, the director called back with the Hubers’ names. Sister Rosaria was approved right away.
“God provided because I don’t think I could have entered; I didn’t have the money to pay my college debt,” she says. “The beauty of this foundation is the amount is still there, but it’s no longer on your shoulders. They’re the ones helping me pay it off little by little.”
Thanks to the Mater Ecclesiae Fund, Daniel Heenan is now a seminarian with the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. “Finding out about Mater Ecclesiae was definitely a godsend,” he says, detailing his story’s providential turns.
Although accepted by this society of apostolic life, Heenan was unable to enter because he had $30,000 of debt for college and graduate school. He was working as a teacher to pay it off. His parents helped drum up donations — they even put on an auction and benefit dinner — but he still came up short. That’s when he and his friend who also wanted to enter religious life applied for a Mater Ecclesiae grant.
“He received a grant, and I didn’t,” relates Heenan. But the very next day, his friend received the money to cover his debt from another source. They told Mater Ecclesiae, and the grant was given to Heenan.
“For me,” says Heenan, “it was really a confirmation of having made the right step, to see how all these pieces came together when God needed them to.” Now he prays for all his benefactors individually. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them.”
For their part, the Hubers love the fact they’re “helping individuals to pray for the rest of us every day, holding the world together with their prayers,” says Corey.
That is true of the 46 current grant holders in formation or who are preparing to enter shortly. The Hubers wish the fund could make those numbers greater.
The Mater Ecclesiae Fund issues grants twice a year, in August and February. Last summer it could only afford to issue seven grants, although there were 29 applications.
“The other 22 had to go back to work to work down their debt,” explains Corey. “The idea that those 22 individuals may never get to religious life is pretty sad.”
To assist as many as possible, the goal of the Hubers is to find donors who see the need to increase the grants and understand the benefits so that the Mater Ecclesiae Fund can help more candidates become priests, nuns and brothers — in either vowed religious life or a society of apostolic life. (There’s a separate fund for men seeking diocesan priesthood.)
“Timing is very important in what this foundation does,” concludes Father Wisdom. “It really makes a difference to allow people to follow their vocation when they’re most open and when it is confirmed by a vocation director. They’re making it possible for people to pursue that vocation when they hear the call the strongest.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
INFORMATION (877) 556-6338 FundForVocations.or