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They want to become nuns and priests. Student debt is holding them back.

It wasn’t until after college that Kendra Baker began to consider becoming a nun. She had been raised Catholic, and after her father fell from the roof of their home, suffering life-threatening injuries, her family called a priest to come and pray with them. A few hours later, his father opened his eyes.

“He has learned to walk again, to talk, to drive – he can eat normally,” Ms Baker, 25, said. “And the doctors told us to prepare for a funeral.”

It wasn’t the only experience that pushed Ms. Baker, who, after graduating from Western Washington University in 2021, moved to Seattle and began feeling a “gentle pull” toward religious life. “Not the booming voice of God saying, ‘Kendra, go to the convent now.’ But just very gently,” she said.

After much thought and research, Ms. Baker found a faith community that she felt matched her interests in both contemplative spirituality and active service, and she was quickly accepted as a candidate for the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Los Angeles. Only one thing was stopping him from enrolling: his student debt.

People wishing to enter religious life in the Catholic tradition are generally required to repay all debts to prepare for taking a vow of poverty, and other people living in religious communities generally do not earn income or own property, which prevents them from paying. all the debts they accumulated as lay people. If they are among the 20% of Americans with an undergraduate degree who have student loan debt, this can pose significant challenges.

A report of the National Conference on Religious Vocations sounded the alarm more than a decade ago with data confirming that “educational debt had become a deterrent for many people discerning a religious vocation”, highlighting factors such as the explosion of tuition fees and the stagnation of wages. Since then, the average student debt in the United States has increased steadily, reaching a on average around $30,000 in 2023.

Several organizations have emerged to help candidates for religious orders resolve this problem. Ms. Baker was put in contact with the Laboré Companya Catholic nonprofit group that has helped more than 400 people pursue religious formation since its founding in 2003.

The average student loan amount for Labouré candidates or aspirants is nearly $100,000, and they typically aim to raise $60,000 during a six-month cycle in which Labouré facilitators train them to make phone calls, write letters and take meetings. with potential donors in their communities. Donations ranged from a few thousand dollars to $130,000 from a retired widow who felt inspired to donate the proceeds from the sale of her home.

Baker said she wasn’t comfortable sharing the full amount of her debt, but it would have taken her five to 10 more years to pay it off if she hadn’t found money. help from the Labouré Company. Instead, she reached her goal in six months and will join her faith community in Los Angeles this summer.

Jake Smith had already completed three years of medical school when he decided to become a priest. He is the second eldest of 12 children in a Catholic family whom he describes as “the salt of the earth, the light of the world” and remembers being encouraged early on to adopt a religious vocation at the age of 14 .

Growing up hoping to one day marry and start a family, Mr. Smith, 31, felt conflicted and did his best to avoid the idea of ​​joining the priesthood for as long as he could.

“When I got accepted to medical school,” he said, “I felt like I had kind of thrown my admission letter in front of God, and I was like: ‘OK, God, there’s no way you’re ever going to get it.’ me now. I’m going to be the best doctor you’ve ever had. I’m going to be the best father in the whole world. So leave me alone with all this vocation stuff.’

But three years into medical school in Denver, after a day spent rotating in family medicine, his thoughts turned again to the priesthood and what he might include in his first homily.

“I realized this was something that would never go away,” Mr. Smith said. After consulting with a priest at his church and speaking with a vocations director in his diocese, he began to realize that his six-figure student loan debt was a significant obstacle.

Diocesan priests, unlike those who live in religious communities, typically earn a modest stipend and are sometimes allowed to take on a small debt before entering a seminary. But for people like Mr. Smith, significant student debt can delay their entry into the priesthood for years, or even indefinitely.

Mr. Smith hopes to clear his student loans through the Labouré Society in the next 12 to 18 months and has already raised just under $60,000 by soliciting donations from local Catholics and speaking with interested individuals. to support religious vocations.

For those without such an extensive Catholic network, fundraising could take a different form.

Kristen Chenoweth converted to Catholicism after leaving Lutheranism in her mid-20s and had no long-standing ties or family ties to the Catholic Church. After earning an undergraduate degree in family ministry and a master’s degree in nonprofit administration, Ms. Chenoweth, now 30, had about $80,000 in student debt. She was accepted into the Dominican Sisters of the Immaculate Conception Province in Illinois, but she could not take her first steps in religious life until this debt was repaid.

She had begun paying off her loans by working, living modestly, raising money through her diocese in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and selling rosaries on Etsy.

Ms. Chenoweth earned about $5,000 from her Etsy store and, with the help of the Dominican Sisters, raised $23,000 on GoFundMe. More recently, she learned that another Catholic organization that provides student debt assistance, the Vocation Fundwould pay off the rest of her loans and she would rejoin her religious community this summer.

Unlike the Labouré Society, the Vocation Fund does not ask aspirants to raise funds, but directly pays their monthly student loan payments for the duration of their training in a religious community.

The Vocation Fund, founded in the early 2000s, has grown considerably in recent years to meet demand. Last year, the organization was able to distribute 28 grants totaling approximately $900,000, for amounts ranging from approximately $5,000 to more than $75,000, depending on the applicants’ needs.

Young applicants often face significantly reduced deadlines to repay their loans. The age limits for candidates, from 30 years old in certain religious orders, create additional pressures. And although many religious communities and seminaries do not require applicants to have a college degree, others encourage or require them, especially if their members provide health or educational services to the community.

Once they have taken their final vows, those who enter religious life also enter a whole new financial reality. For Sister Gianna Casino, living as a nun with the Leaven of the Immaculate Heart of Mary community and pronouncing her perpetual vows in 2020 gave her a feeling of financial freedom.

A former biochemistry major, Sister Gianna, 30, graduated with more than $20,000 in student debt. She began her religious training under an agreement that her family would cover her monthly payments and that they would be paid to her before her final vows. When his family experienced financial difficulties a few years into his training process, the Vocation Fund agreed to repay the remainder of his loans.

She has now been able to continue her studies, this time without fear of taking on more debt, because her religious community covers her costs, including her tuition. Sister Gianna is studying to become a clinical mental health counselor at Divine Mercy University and completed mental health training at Harvard Medical School. Although the degree will be free, any income she earns upon graduation will be shared with her religious order.

While many religious communities are funded by donations or businesses, such as the chocolates and candies sold by members of Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa, some pool income that members such as nurses or educators earn through outside employment.

“I am able to study without anxiety or worry,” Sister Gianna said. “I am able to focus on prayer and focus spiritually, emotionally, physically and intellectually on the people I will serve in the coming years, and even now, because my community supports me financially in this way.”

While the sacrifices can be great, religious life can also offer a rare form of freedom from the financial constraints and typical stressors that dictate most people’s lives.

“It takes me back to the Gospel of Luke,” Sister Gianna said. “Jesus said, “You cannot serve two masters. You cannot serve God and money.

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