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Student loans create a roadblock for those discerning religious life

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The teenager was excited to attend a Catholic university. She knew it was expensive, but she saw her education as an investment, one she had 30 years to pay for gradually. During her college years, she made good friends and grew deeper in her faith. After earning her degree from The Catholic University of America in Washington, she began teaching at Saint John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Potomac Shores. 

There was just one problem. Dominican Sister Ann Dominic Mahowald, as she’s now known, realized she was being called to enter religious life. And $100,000 of education debt stood between her and what she believed was God’s plan for her life. 

Thomas Conroy grew up serving at the altar at St. James Church in Falls Church and later attended Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington. But it wasn’t until he was studying at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., that he began to seriously consider his vocation. “A good group of friends taught me that God was more than something I did on Sundays,” said Conroy. “He was really somebody who I could fall in love with and who could love me.”

After a period of discernment, Conroy applied and was accepted to the Dominican Order. But his student loans are stopping him from entering formation. “For the Dominicans, and I imagine a lot of religious orders, student debt is not something they’re able to subsume,” said Conroy. “They’re not exactly flush with cash.” 

Student loans are preventing many young adults from entering religious life. According to the National Religious Vocation Conference, every third person who inquires about religious life has an average student loan of $28,000. Many religious communities report or estimate a good percentage of their serious inquirers don’t apply or ultimately don’t finish their application because of student loans. “The amount can vary from person to person,” said Sister Ann Dominic. “But every young person I’ve talked to at some point asks the question, ‘What did you do about loans?’ ”

Once Sister Ann Dominic decided to enter the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, she knew she’d have to find a way to pay down the debt fast. So she moved in with her aunt and uncle nearby. She met with her principal, Sister Mary Jordan Hoover, who offered her a coaching job to earn extra money. “Every month, I took my paycheck and I paid my car bill and my phone bill. I took everything else and I paid off as much of my student loans as I could,” she said. “I left not even $5 for an emergency in my bank account.”

Friends, relatives and her parish pitched in, including her father’s Knights of Columbus council, which held a pancake breakfast fundraiser for her. But as generous as their gifts were, she knew she needed a huge intervention soon. So, she reached out to the Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations, a nonprofit that covers student loans for men and women as they discern. 

The group was founded by Corey and Katherine Huber, who first became interested in helping aspiring religious after a conversation with Father Edward C. Hathaway, then pastor at St. John the Beloved Church in McLean. He told them about a man who wanted to enter religious life but was within six months of the upper age limit for entering and still had about $40,000 in outstanding student loans. From that situation, Mater Ecclesiae was born.

“Basically, (Mater Ecclesiae) said my loans were too big for even them,” Sister Ann Dominic said with a laugh. “They could do a portion, but they couldn’t do it all. It was a very stressful time, lots of tears. I felt irresponsible.” 

One day, Sister Ann Dominic got a call from a priest friend who said he knew someone who wanted to help. Over the course of a dinner, the benefactor offered to pay $40,000 toward the debt. Then Sister Ann Dominic’s grandmother sent her a $13,000 check in the mail. “She’s like, ‘Did you get the card I sent you?’ And I said, ‘Yes, thanks Grandma.’ And then I opened it up and said, ‘Oh my gosh,’ ” recalled Sister Ann Dominic. 

Between donations from friends and family, her grandmother, her benefactor and Mater Ecclesiae, Sister Ann Dominic was able to enter religious life 10 years ago. Now, she’s once again at John Paul the Great, this time as assistant principal of student life and discipline. 

Conroy is still in the midst of paying off his loans with the help of the Labouré Society. The organization creates classes of aspirants, or those hoping to enter religious life, and teaches them how to fundraise. “There are 21 of us who are fundraising collectively for all of our student debts,” Conroy said. “For me, it means a lot because it’s not just me on my lonesome. Knowing there are other people behind you and you’re working together with them is a great consolation.”

If all goes well, Conroy hopes to enter the Dominicans next summer. He believes this journey to pay down his debt is preparing him for religious life. “The (fundraising) process helps with growing in self-abandonment, because you don’t have control. You learn that (God’s) in charge,” he said. “It's an incredibly humbling and gratifying process to invite people into my vocation and to have the hope that one day I can wear that habit and be a priest of Jesus Christ. It’s a beautiful life.”

Sister Ann Dominic still prays for those who financially supported her vocation. She fondly remembers an 8-year-old friend of the family who saved up her allowance to give $1. “I choke up saying this,” she said. “I took that dollar and I put it behind an icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. It was the last donation I made in my bank account before I closed it out to go to the convent. For me, that dollar represented the faith I needed to know God was in control.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020