HARTFORD – When Sister Clara Mahilia Roach entered the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus two years ago in Hamden, she came with two things: a call to her vocation and $90,000 in educational debt acquired after earning an undergraduate degree in international studies and a Master of Arts in international trade and policy.
Even with her jobs at Bank of America and in customer service at the Knights of Columbus, plus attempts to do her own fund-raising, she was unable to substantially pare down the hefty college debt.
Sister Mahilia is not unlike many young aspirants today who enter religious communities with an average of $28,000 in college debt.
The crisis of outstanding student loans, attributed to college tuition that has escalated 1,000 percent in the United States over the last three decades, not only is suffocating the dreams of young women and men who are pursuing religious life, but it is also putting a strain on religious institutes.
“In the past, candidates came after high school and we paid for college,” said Sister Anne Walsh, provincial superior for the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Hamden. “But now vocations are coming later, after college.
“There have been vocations that have not come to fruition because of debt,” said Sister Anne. “So it raises the question, ‘How can we help young people who have a vocation that they can’t pursue because of educational debt?’”
To help answer the question, she served on a national working group that led to a 2012 study on Educational Debt and Vocations to Religious Life commissioned by the Chicago-based National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC) in collaboration with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. The study was funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.
The debt study found that seven in 10 institutes (or 69 percent) turned away at least one person because of educational debt; that every third person who approaches a religious community has debt of at least $28,000; and that in the last 15 years, institutes have lost more than 1,000 applicants because of college debt.
Some candidates, Sister Anne noted, have developed their own creative strategies for paying off debt, such as candy sales, marathon runs, bingo fund-raisers, vocation talks and the creation of websites and blogs requesting donations.
But with religious institutes facing the crushing burden of what some have estimated to be a collective $6 million in college debt (and growing at an annual rate of 5 percent), more impactful solutions are needed.
One response to the study was a $2 million grant awarded to NRVC in 2014 by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation to support upgrading and expanding the organization’s structure, programming and resources.
The foundation, which was established by the hotel giant in 1944, has targeted the work of Catholic sisters as one of its priority funding areas, the result of Mr. Hilton’s esteem for Catholic sisters based in part upon his years attending a Catholic school in New Mexico.
“For vocations, educational debt is like the canary in the coal mines,” said Holy Cross Brother Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of NRVC.
“When you look at the infrastructure of our Catholic schools, health care, social service agencies, and Catholic colleges, it’s built on the backs of men and women religious,” he observed. “How do we keep this legacy going in the future? How do we keep this going so that future generations can benefit from their service?”
To assist communities, Brother Paul said that NRVC created a handbook on educational debt for superiors and vocation directors (available online at www.nrvc.net) that offers guidelines and direction on the canonical, financial and spiritual implications of dealing with candidates who enter with debt.
According to Sister Anne, each community handles educational debt differently. Some communities assume the debt, others require the debt to be paid before entering, many have aspirants make monthly installments over an agreed-upon period of time. And, for obvious reasons, if a candidate decides not to pursue her call, “then she usually goes home with the debt,” she said.
However, thanks to the Hilton Foundation grant, a major effort was announced by NRVC last February when it launched the National Fund for Catholic Religious Vocations, enabling institutes of women religious to apply for grants for candidates who enter with educational debt.
“It’s our hope that this fund would be one response to increasing the number of men and women coming to religious life,” said Brother Paul.
Other groups have also stepped up to help with the challenge, including the Knights of Columbus, Serra Vocation Fund and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Also, the Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations, a family-initiated fund in Virginia, offers grants that help pay the minimum monthly payments of a sister’s or brother’s student loans. And the Labouré Society in Minnesota works with aspirants to help candidates find ways of mitigating the loan amount.
“The whole question of educational debt is only going to get worse,” said Brother Paul. “By establishing this fund now, we hope to meet the needs of candidates for religious life in the future.”