May 28, 2010

Student loan debt is a national problem for religious life aspirants

By Sean Gallagher

Jennifer Prickel appreciates the praise and the moral and spiritual support that she has received as she works to pay off more than $50,000 in student loan debt in order to follow her calling to become a religious sister.

But all of those good feelings don’t take away the fact that, after a year of working at St. Nicholas School in Ripley County, she is still unable to enter the Steubenville, Ohio-based Sisters of Reparation to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. (Related story: Aspirant to religious life held back by student loan debt)

“Although I would love to be able to enter right now, I recognize that the Lord has not taken away the debt,” Prickel said. “It just means that I have another year of ministry at St. Nicholas.”

Prickel knows, however, that she isn’t alone in this dilemma.

“I have tons of friends, even in my graduating class, who are working now … to try to pay off debts because they can’t go into [a religious community] right away,” said Prickel, a 2009 graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio.

The Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations, a public charity based in northern Virginia, has awarded Prickel a grant to pay off part of her student loan debt over time.

Corey Huber, who is co-founder and president of the fund that was established in 2007, said that as many as half of all aspirants to religious life had student loan debt at one time and that, for a quarter of them, the level of the debt is high enough to prevent them from easily retiring it so they can enter religious life.

“It’s very prevalent,” Huber said.

Mother M. Wendy McMenamy, the superior of the Sisters of Reparation, agreed.

“We have met several young women whose desire to follow the call to religious life has been hampered by loans,” she said. “Some have begun what might be a slow process of working and seeking aid. To all [of] them, we can readily say that God does not issue a call without giving the graces to fulfill that call.”

Sometimes, Mother Wendy said, those graces come through hard work and at other times through the charity of organizations such as the Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations or home parishes or individual donations.

Huber said that women’s religious communities in general have a difficult time helping aspirants to religious life retire the student loan debt for a couple of reasons.

One, there are many more women’s communities than men’s communities. And, two, they are not as active in parish ministry—where fundraising can more easily happen—as men’s communities.

To date, the Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations has awarded 86 grants. The grant funds are disbursed as monthly payments to pay off loans.

More than 60 of the individuals who received those grants are still in formation in their communities. If a person who received a grant chooses to leave their community, the monthly payments stop.

Huber said that, in the past year, he has had to turn down many applicants due to a lack of financial resources in the fund.

And he emphasized the nature of this aspect of the vocations crisis in the Church by noting that student loan debt is holding back those who have actually been accepted by communities.

“It’s not just a case of people who might be interested in a vocation,” Huber said. “All the people we see have been accepted to religious life. And they won’t get in unless they solve this problem.”

(For more information on the Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations, log on to

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