Safety Net

The Fisherman’s Fund at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit is one of a growing number of programs aimed to help aspiring priests overcome college debt.

The tools of the fisherman’s trade are familiar to the lexicon of vocations. But the Fishermen’s Fund’s strategy of “casting a net for Sacred Heart Major Seminary students” in the Archdiocese of Detroit is more than just a clever metaphor; it’s a battle plan to ensure that no vocation is lost to the burden of academic debt.

“We decided to create this fund and really use it as an advertisement to say, ‘Don’t let financial circumstances hinder your vocation,’” explained Fishermen’s Fund co-chairman Richard Dugas.

Less than half of Sacred Heart Major Seminary’s current seminarians — 36 out of 91 — are destined for local parishes. Projections indicate a scenario now familiar nationwide: Within a decade, if trends continue, there will be 87 fewer priests in the Archdiocese of Detroit.

About three years ago, in the midst of strategizing for Sacred Heart’s capital campaign — one aspect of which was a possible endowment to assist needy students — Dugas and board colleague Kathleen McCann, senior vice president of Detroit-based Soave Enterprises, hit upon an initiative to meet a need not only of bricks and mortar, but of men.

“Kathleen and I simultaneously came up with the idea that, instead of just paying off debt, why don’t we create a scholarship fund — much like any college might use — to attract candidates to the priesthood?” said Dugas, president and CEO of Pulte Homes. “We could not only help with financial assistance, but we could hopefully increase vocations.”

While graduate training and formation are covered, the Archdiocese of Detroit is unable to fully fund the roughly $18,000-per-year cost of a seminarian’s undergraduate study at Sacred Heart. The resulting scenario is personal academic debt that follows a future priest from dorm room to rectory.

The choice to forfeit a secular income for service to the Church also converts tuition bills into an extended liability.

“It’s just not reasonable to think they will be able to go back into their parishes or ordained life and be able to pay back this debt,” McCann believes. “We need to sacrifice to help them.”

The combination of older seminarians and higher tuition price tags are, in the chronology of vocations, a relatively recent development. Father David Toups, associate director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat for Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations, explained that “40 years ago, men entered the seminary at 15, and went through high school, college, theologate.” With changed vocations patterns — only 22% of those ordained in 2007 were under 30, Father Toups noted — comes the altered financial reality of existing candidate debt.

With an almost-met continuous operating goal of $1 million, 50% of Fishermen’s Fund principal and interest can be awarded annually to offset undergraduate seminarian tuition at Sacred Heart, or to retire a portion of student loan debt from previous undergraduate education.

To date, almost $300,000 has been distributed from the Fishermen’s Fund as loans — loans that are forgiven only when or if a graduate is ordained or agrees to serve the Archdiocese of Detroit for at least five years. If these requirements aren’t met, the recipient is responsible for repaying the grant, albeit on a pro-rated basis.

Attention on Formation

Four years of undergraduate study at Sacred Heart wasn’t economically feasible for second-year seminarian Eric Tarachowski’s single-income family. “Something this expensive — without any help — would be very difficult,” said Tarachowski, 19, who entered Sacred Heart directly from high school.

Tarachowski is realistic about the financial pressures he’ll still likely face at the parish level once ordained. But for the present, aid from the Fishermen’s Fund allows him to “continue on in seminary without the burden and stress of finances … it allows me to focus all my attention on formation.”

With a target audience of potential and current Sacred Heart students, the Fishermen’s Fund also aims its message at Catholics in the pew — chiefly because most assume that a seminarian’s complete education is gratis.

Donations and raised awareness are not, however, the sole reasons for the grassroots campaign: Fishermen’s Fund aid also goes to potential deacons and lay ministers — both of which, as the Fund’s promotional materials summarize, “our parishes increasingly rely upon as the number of our overburdened priests continues to decline.”

“We have over 400 lay students who study at Sacred Heart,” said McCann. “The majority of these laity come from single income homes. Over half are going to go back into unpaid parish positions. It’s not inexpensive to receive the undergraduate or master’s degrees that supply the knowledge that they can take back to the parish to share with us.”

Almost 40 grants have been made thus far — 24 to seminarians and 15 to lay students. The Fund’s guidelines also allow for support outside the Archdiocese of Detroit, and under that provision, an Iraqi sister studying elsewhere in Michigan received assistance.

‘Eternal Return’

As profiled in the Register’s March 11, 2007 edition, other lay-led initiatives — each with checks and balances similar to the Fishermen’s Fund — also recognize the critical need to eliminate the “vocation killer” of debt.

“It’s an eternal return on investment opportunity,” suggested Cy Laurent, a businessman and entrepreneur with 20-plus years of Fortune 500 corporate experience. As founder and executive director of the Minnesota-based Laboure Society, Laurent and almost 5,000 donors have financially assisted over 100 aspirants to the priesthood and religious life. “This is an opportunity for lay people to step up,” Laurent emphasized. “We’ve been praying for vocations, and they’re here — so shame on us if we can’t see that they’re able to fulfill that call.”

As the successful result of its first direct mail campaign, Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations’ St. Joseph Student Debt Relief Grant Program recently awarded 10 new grants to religious discerners, six friars and four nuns. “What we are noticing as we encounter people is that the laity get it,” said founder Corey Huber. “You don’t have to sell this.” MEFV, headquartered in Falls Church, Va., is also retooling a program to assist diocesan priesthood candidates.

Some Catholic colleges without federal funding restrictions have also decided to take an active role in encouraging vocations through debt reduction or forgiveness for graduates who enter religious life. Among these are Christendom College in Front Royal, Va.; Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H.; and Magdalen College in Warner, N.H.

Jeffrey Karls, president of Magdalen, believes that “every Catholic university should do something to say, ‘We want to help make it fiscally possible for a graduate who’s discerning a vocation to take the first step.’”

Karls explained that the college’s unofficial, case-by-case policy of both debt deferral and forgiveness was inaugurated almost a decade ago. Founded in 1973, Magdalen — whose student body is limited to around 100 — has more than 40 graduates in religious life or the priesthood.

Ultimately, the ever-escalating costs of a college education make all such efforts indispensable to encouraging vocations. “Anything we can do to get people involved in the lives of our seminarians and future vocations,” said Father Toups, “works to build up a vocations culture in our Church.“

Kimberly Heatherington

is based in Fairfax, Virginia.


Fishermen’s Fund,; Sacred Heart Major Seminary,; Laboure Society,; Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations,; Magdalen College,

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