After three years of teaching junior high school, Bill Duffert answered a call to the priesthood. He was cleared for acceptance into the seminary, except for one problem — he owed well over $35,000 in student loans, the threshold amount that his Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is willing to take on.
Duffert estimated that it could take 10 years or more on a teacher’s salary to whittle his debt down enough to start seminary. “I felt it would have been impossible unless I won the lottery,” he said.
Yet, after only two years, thanks to the Labouré Society’s coaching on fundraising, Duffert entered the St. Paul Seminary at the University of St. Thomas this September. He credits that experience with also strengthening his vocation. “I met so many people who pray for vocations and want good and holy religious,” Duffert said. “I was blown away by people’s generosity and their desire to build up the Church.”
At a time when the Catholic Church in the U.S. is experiencing a shortage of vocations, it is a sad irony that 42% of qualified men and women are turned away. High student loan debts are often more than many communities and dioceses can take on. A “Survey for the National Religious Vocations Conference” found an average of more than $28,000 in debt among serious inquiries.
Labouré Finds a Way
Founded in 2001 by Minnesota businessman Cy Laurent and his wife, Evelyn, the Labouré Society — whose patron is the Marian visionary St. Catherine Labouré — is a nonprofit organization that helps aspirants fundraise in order to pay down their loans so that they can enter the priesthood, convent or friary.
Since its founding, Labouré has helped 268 men and women with an average of $60,000 in student debt.
Aspirants attend an intensive four-day “boot camp” at the Eagan, Minnesota, headquarters to learn the basics of fundraising and biblically based philanthropy. They actually become part of a six-month class in which donations go to the entire class, not individuals. Aspirants do get credit, however, for donations toward their individual goal, which Labouré uses in calculating the grant award to the aspirant.
As long as they are still in need, aspirants can continue in the next six-month class. Follow-up videoconferences, weekly phone calls and visits with accountability partners who give them ongoing support afterward are included.
Frank Moore, a businessman living in St. Louis, Missouri, grew up Protestant in the Bible Belt of the South but converted to Catholicism through his wife Nancy’s influence. In 2011, he considered how God had blessed him abundantly and wanted to give back. As a Vietnam veteran and one who likes to fight for causes, he prayed: “Father, put me in a battle for your Church. And put me in the tip of a spear in a fight that I will not screw up, to help your kingdom advance on earth.”
A few months later, when Moore heard about Labouré on EWTN Radio, he knew that was his cause. “I was shocked that the problem [student debt] was as big as it is and that the Church didn’t have better solutions for it,” he said. “I liked how Labouré worked with people who were already accepted by their dioceses and their only obstacle was debt.”
Due to the high cost of education in this country, Moore said it’s a problem that is only getting worse.
“You go to most abbots and bishops with $100,000 in debt, and they can’t help,” he said. “The interest rate alone is $6,000 a year. It often means putting off a vocation for 10, 15 and more years, and we may end up losing that vocation.”
Moore explained that fundraising frightens many people, but he teaches aspirants to share their vocation stories.
He has served on the Labouré board and also as an accountability partner, which involves coaching and encouraging aspirants through once-a-week phone calls. “They come to understand it’s not just about money, but about their vocational calling,” Moore said. “They learn to leave the identification and location of financial resources up to potential benefactors.” He has helped many aspirants as an accountability partner, including two women who successfully fundraised to pay off $200,000 in loans.
“Many Catholics have spent hours on their knees praying for vocations,” he said. “So it’s quite inspiring to have a hands-on role, helping a terrific man or woman advance toward entering formation.”
“Next to being a father and husband, this is the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
Good Use of Resources
J. Scott Widman, a financial adviser in Lenexa, Kansas, learned about Labouré three years ago through his daughter’s childhood friend Brianna Murphy who wanted to become a religious sister. After helping Murphy become Sister Mary of Kenosis, he became passionate about Labouré.
“There is no better use for my resources than to help put an aspirant into formation sooner so that he or she can be closer to a life of prayer, service and spirituality for the community,” he said. “What a huge return on your investment!”
Widman said that vocations are not just important to the Church, but benefit all of mankind. “How would the world be different if there were 10 more priests or nuns? 25? 100?” he asked. “Imagine the people they can touch each day and how many more souls they can help get to heaven.”
Past aspirants have told him that going through Labouré helped prepare them for religious life by becoming more confident and learning time-management skills.
A Way to Pay Back
In 2012, Melda Boyd and her husband, Gary, learned that fellow parishioner Katie Clemmer at St. Joseph’s Church in Herndon, Virginia, was hoping to become a religious sister. Melda had recently returned to the Church, and Gary had just entered. They began supporting Clemmer through Labouré; and two years later, Melda became an accountability partner.
“Gary and I want to help build the Church in any way we can because the Church introduces people to Christ and helps them grow as Christians,” she said. “On a personal note, I want to help support the Labouré Society as a way of giving back and paying forward.”
Melda explained that after 30 years away from the Church, her six years of Catholic school as a child had always been a part of her.
She also personally benefited from scholarships during her education and wants to help others now.
“I want to pay the Church back for all it has done for me, including the grace with which the Church accepted me back into the fold,” she said.
As an accountability partner, Melda said she has received more than she has given through the joy of playing a part in helping people fulfill their vocations.
“An unexpected bonus for Gary and me,” she said, “has been the friendship we’ve established with Katie Clemmer, who now is Sister Kathryn, Servant of the Immaculate Heart of Mary — though she’ll always be Sister Katie to us.”
Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.