Eliminating Debt, Fostering Vocations
Unfortunately, an obstacle for many discernment paths is educational loans to repay. Catholic organizations ease the burden for future religious.
Sister Pamela Rose Suresca, a novice with the Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco in Haledon, New Jersey, and Joey Dumais, future postulant with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in the Bronx, both experienced the ups and downs of an early call to religious life.
“My kindergarten teachers joked that I would be a priest even back then,” Dumais said, “but insecurities and the desire for friendship pushed me to set the religious thing aside and embrace basketball as the be-all end-all of my life.”
Sister Pamela Rose remembers feeling “awestruck” the first time she met her aunt, a cloistered sister in the Philippines. However, when she wrote “nun” on a career inventory at her public school, the teacher sent her to the principal’s office for not taking the assessment seriously.
“People thought I was joking,” Sister Pamela Rose said, which led her to “suppress the feelings” of a vocational call.
Thankfully, the two rediscovered this call in their early 20s: Dumais, a senior at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, through a college mission trip, and Suresca as a missionary with the pro-life apostolate weDignify. Unfortunately, one other common thread loomed as an obstacle for their vocational paths: educational debt.
According to a 2012 Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) study commissioned by the National Religious Vocations Conference (NRVC), Sister Pamela Rose and Dumais are not alone in this challenge.
A summary of the CARA study noted that “of those responding religious institutes with at least three serious inquirers in the last ten years who had educational debt at the time of their inquiry, seven in ten (69 percent) turned away at least some inquirers because of their educational debt.”
When Sister Pamela Rose answered the distinct call to enter the Salesian sisters in 2019, she had no idea how to pay off her student loans. Shortly thereafter, an acquaintance unaware of her discernment gave her a mug with a quote from the Salesians’ founder, St. John Bosco:
“Entrust all things to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and to Mary, Help of Christians, and you will see what miracles are.”
Sister Pamela Rose was taken aback but grateful for the encouragement. After all, the canonical title of the religious community she desired to enter is “The Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians.”
“Okay, God, you’re totally a part of this,” she said. “I will keep going as long as you pave the way.”
Thus #projectmiracle was born.
With the help of family and friends, Suresca began raising funds to pay off her student loans. She wrote letters and made visits to previous weDignify benefactors and spread the word through social media and the newspaper of the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, where she lived at the time.
Suresca appreciated the support of a local prayer group that held a garage sale in her honor along with donating proceeds from their personal businesses: exercise classes, baked goods and handmade dolls.
Through the Salesian Sisters, Suresca also received support from the National Fund for Catholic Religious Vocations. Created in 2014 as a response to the aforementioned CARA study on the educational debt of religious aspirants, the NFCRV works directly with religious communities to aid candidates in paying off their debts over the course of several years.
“Educational debt is a serious burden on young adults as they strive to follow their chosen careers and vocations,” said NFCRV Executive Director Phil Loftus. “Our goal is to fully endow the Vocation Fund to solve this obstacle to vocations permanently for women’s and men’s religious institutes.”
Salesian Sister Margaret Wilhelm, treasurer of the Salesian Sisters in Haledon, called the National Fund for Catholic Religious Vocations “a beautiful arrangement.”
“To absorb the level of debt many young women have accrued is staggering,” she said. “[The NFCRV] helps us say ‘Yes’ to someone discerning in a timely manner.”
Dumais found a different but equally helpful solution in the Labouré Society, a nonprofit founded by businessman Cy Laurent that has assisted 400 men and women since 2001.
Labouré forms groups of “aspirants” and trains them in biblically based principles of philanthropy and fundraising. Each aspirant aims to raise $60,000 (the average debt each aspirant brings to Labouré) with weekly group check-ins and individual accountability provided along the way.
At the end of six months, a portion of funds raised are reserved to provide initial support for the next group. The remainder is divided according to several factors, including how many phone calls and/or face-to-face meetings each aspirant conducts.
John Flanagan, Labouré’s executive director, said face-to-face meetings with benefactors are key to the process, as they offer opportunities for each aspirant to “evangelize with their story.”
“They’re saying, ‘Hey, God is still alive calling people to be sisters and brothers, and as a class, here are 20 others just like me,’” Flanagan said. “It blesses those who give. [The benefactors] encounter a vocation in a real, human way.”
“[Labouré] really gives me an excuse to share what Jesus has done in my life with almost every single person I know,” he said. “My benefactors aren’t some anonymous people behind a paywall. They’re actually people I’m talking to and developing relationships with over time. Having a personal connection with benefactors is really important to me.”
Flanagan also pointed out that many religious orders are mendicant communities that live on the generous support of benefactors.
“[The future religious sisters and brothers] are going to need to be able to ask for things,” Flanagan said. “We are providing them a skill set I daresay every religious needs but no seminary teaches.”
Many of these skills are imparted through weekly accountability with successful Catholic businessmen and women.
Scott Widman, a financial adviser in DeSoto, Kansas, began serving as an accountability partner with Labouré in 2016.
While Widman emphasized that accountability partners aren’t spiritual directors or psychologists, he said they do help aspirants navigate the various emotions and concerns that come with approaching benefactors for financial support.
“It is one of the favorite things I do in my life,” he said. “I like watching the growth in an aspirant in all areas of their life: their confidence, their ability to organize their day and to deal with people.”
Most importantly, Widman says Labouré gives aspirants needed support.
“They’re not on an island,” he said. “The world generally doesn’t support vocations, but this is a family that really is 100% behind their discernment.”
Dumais said he is “incredibly thankful” for Labouré and the opportunity to participate in the raising of funds for his educational debt. He explained that the debts remain in his name and are paid gradually by Labouré over the course of several years. If Dumais discerns that he is not permanently called to the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, Labouré will pause the payments and use the funds to help other aspirants.
Dumais said he especially appreciates this “freedom of discernment.”
“I don’t have to feel at any point that I’m bound to stay [with the friars] because people paid off my student loans already,” he said. “And the community is not being used for someone to get some cool formation and have their loans paid off.”
Salesian Sister Margaret agreed.
“I tell the young women, ‘I don’t want your finances inhibiting your freedom in discerning,’” she said. “If they discern that it’s not their vocation, it’s not a failure. It’s not a waste. The funds still helped achieve the purpose of the discernment.”
Flanagan pointed to other organizations that support vocations, such as the Serra Club, the Knights of Columbus and Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations, and said Labouré works “collaboratively” with them when possible.
Every contribution helps, he said, including the Biden administration’s announcement that it would cancel $10,000 in student-loan debt for Americans earning less than $125,000 per year.
Even so, Flanagan said the need is still great.
“If you’re taking a vow of poverty, going from $30,000 [of debt] to $20,000 is huge, but it is still a long way to go to be debt-free in order to enter,” he said.
The Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations has given nearly 300 grants to aspirants of 93 religious communities since its founding in 2007.
“Our grant program is designed so men and women who seek to answer God’s call can do so immediately, without delay or distraction,” said Mary Radford, the fund’s executive director.
Radford added that the Mater Ecclesiae Fund receives applications four times each year. The current cycle closes Nov. 30, with grants awarded on Jan. 31, 2023.
“The lay faithful need the presence of our religious and priests to pass on the faith,” Flanagan said. “If we can do something to ensure there is a future of faith, we must.”
To learn more about the National Fund for Catholic Religious Vocations, visit:
The Labouré Society:
Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations: