Candidates for the religious life need more than the Church’s prayers. They need financial help, too, as many are too deep in student-loan debt to do serious religious discernment. So says Corey Huber, a former Baptist who founded the Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations. Along with his wife, Katherine, Huber has awarded 30 grants to individuals pursuing a religious calling. He spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake from his home in Arlington, Va.

How did the foundation get started?

The Fraser Family Foundation exists because I used to work for America Online when they were handing out stock options like candy. I found myself with a lot of extra money floating around.

Our pastor, Father Edward Hathaway, knew we had a private foundation and came to us regarding a young man who wanted to be a Norbertine but had a huge debt-load of $40,000. The Norbertines couldn’t take him with that debt and he was reaching the age limit for acceptance. Father Hathaway asked if we could help this guy out.

As a private foundation, we can’t write out checks to individuals, so we went through the necessary paperwork for the IRS to approve our program. By the time we received the necessary approval, the young man had decided not to go into religious life. We had a grant program, but no one to participate in it. It was like being all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Within the next month, I was at an Arlington Serra Club discernment dinner and I was seated next to someone who was applying for the seminary. After I explained our grant program, the young man said, “I know someone with that problem. May I tell her about your program?” For the next two years, word spread by word of mouth.

How significant of a stumbling block is educational debt for those discerning a vocation?

Most of us have only anecdotal evidence of the problem, but it’s a significant difficulty.

The U.S. Department of Education has studied the debt level of individuals. In the mid-1990s the percentage of individuals with $25,000 or more in debt was in the single digits. In 2004, it was 25% of all graduates. If religious institutes are seeing a cross-section of graduates, they can expect 1 in 4 applying to have that much debt when they come to their door. The post-John Paul II vocation bubble is making this loan problem worse, as more individuals are likely to have this problem.

How does the program work practically?

We try to stay outside of the discernment process; we have no influence over discernment. In order to apply for a grant, the individual needs a letter of acceptance from the religious order so we know that the discernment process has taken place by the time they send in their grant application.

A board reviews the applications and decides which individuals should be offered grants.

Once accepted, the foundation takes over the minimum required payment for the loan. We pay the loan for as long as the individual remains in formation. Should they leave, they start paying again. The loan never transfers from the individual to us. We do not take over financial responsibility; we’re just a third party making payments. On the fifth anniversary of solemn vows, we guarantee that the loan will go away altogether.

The average amount we are paying is $225 per month per individual. That’s over a course of about 13 years.

You’ve now started the Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations. Tell me about that.

The assets of the Fraser Foundation got fully committed. We have issued 30 grants. Of those, 21 are still in force. This past August we had 10 applicants and only enough money to make five grants, so we had to close the program to new applications.

That prompted us to create a new public charity to continue the work of the foundation. We received nonprofit-organization status for tax purposes March 1. We are searching for a director of development and are in the process of assembling a board. We will run the same grant program with the same rules, but it will be publicly funded. Other members of the laity will now be able to participate in the endeavor.

What about those who leave formation?

No grant is a failure. We don’t perceive the fact that nine people have left formation as a problem. Even though they leave formation, the availability of the grant made it possible for them to get to the position of discernment. If we hadn’t made the grant, they could not have answered the question properly. Those who decide to not persevere usually leave within the first 12 months, so, to our way of thinking, it’s a fairly inexpensive way of encouraging them to explore the possibility.

To what religious orders do your grantees belong?

They belong to orders such as the Carthusians in Vermont, Friars of the Immaculate in Maine, N.Y., Holy Transfiguration Skete, Sisters of St. John the Baptist in the Bronx, Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist, and the Nashville Dominicans, among many others.

What do you see as possible solutions to the problem?

As a grant-maker I’m interested in how I can make more grants and what can be done to shrink the pool of people needing grants. I was very intrigued by an idea that came out of the recent Institute on Religious Life meeting — transitional, inexpensive housing for young people discerning their vocations, places they could live while paying down their debts. I’m also interested in the idea of a hybrid solution involving a Catholic source for student loans.

There’s also a great need for the education of families. I don’t think there is as much attention on the part of young people seeking loans as there should be.

Tim Drake writes from

St. Joseph, Minnesota.