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Millennial Catholics discuss housing, parenting and faith

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You may have heard about millennials. The generational cohort born between 1981 and 1996 is known for loving avocado toast and online shopping. They are getting married and having children later than their parents and grandparents. They’re better educated but have more student debt. According to Pew Research, they’re likely to flock to metropolitan regions, such as the Washington area. 

Millennials living in Northern Virginia face similar financial pressures as their peers around the country but also the additional high cost of living in this area. The dream of owning a home with a white picket fence, especially inside the Beltway, can seem unattainable for many middle class young adults. Some cope with financial pressure by delaying settling down. But many Catholic couples, who believe in a faith that encourages marriage and openness to children, are finding ways to make their dreams of family life work in an expensive area. 

The Mello Family

Claire Mello, 26, and her husband, Marius, 26, describe themselves as crazy, in love and totally financially unprepared when they got married. After graduating from high school, Claire served as a missionary in Jamaica for two years before enrolling in Christendom College in Front Royal. It was there she met Marius, who attended Christendom off and on, but ultimately didn’t finish his degree. 

“I didn’t really want to go to school. I’ve never been built to sit at a desk,” he said. The cost didn’t help, either. “I had $26,000 in debt after just one year. That hurts a lot.” Marius worked different minimum wage jobs while slowly building up a landscaping business. In between classes, Claire worked as a cashier at a health food store. With financial help from Claire’s parents for the wedding, the couple married in between Claire’s junior and senior year.

They got pregnant with their first child, Maxine, now 18 months old, shortly after Claire graduated from Christendom. “(When people ask if we were trying to have kids), I always say we weren’t trying to avoid it. We were open to whatever God wanted,” she said. Claire commuted from Front Royal to a Montessori school in Nokesville until she had the baby. Then they moved from their rented house into her parents’ home. She now works part-time for her father’s company. 

The Mellos ended up in Northern Virginia after Marius found a job inspecting roofs, which paid better than his landscaping business. The work sent him all around, but typically closer to Washington than Front Royal. “Even though it’s double the cost of living out here, we reconciled it with the fact that we were saving a lot on gas and I wouldn’t have to buy a car right away because we have access to public transportation,” said Claire. Still, the truck they do have is in her name. “I have the credit (score), he has the income,” she said, laughing, “Together, we make it work.”

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The family lives in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in Alexandria, the town Claire chose for its ambience. “I wanted to live someplace cute,” she said. They registered at the Basilica of St. Mary and Claire attends a mothers’ group at St. Louis Church in Alexandria. Marius had stopped practicing Catholicism after high school but later reverted. “We go to church every Sunday now, we say goodnight prayers with our baby, we bless our food,” he said. “We got to the National Basilica for fun.” 

In the future, they hope to send Maxine and their son, Roman, due in October, to a Montessori school. “Financially, that’s pretty expensive, so I would go back to work at that point,” said Claire, ideally at the school their children attend. As they pay down their debt and start building up savings, they hope one day to buy or build their perfect home somewhere in Manassas, or maybe closer to Front Royal. “We definitely talk about it all the time,” said Claire. 

The McGiffin Family

Brothers Brendan, 7, David, 5, Matthew, 3, and James, 2, smile and cheer as their father Daniel, 29, pushes them higher and higher on the swing in their front lawn. Baby Finn rests comfortably in his mother Mary’s arms as she watches her boys soar. 

The five brothers get a lot of family time. Mary, 29, homeschools the school-age children, and though he commutes from Herndon to Arlington, Daniel’s schedule allows him a good amount of quality time with his kids before their bedtime. They know many Northern Virginia families involve their kids in several different activities, but Mary and Daniel, parishioners of St. Veronica Church in Chantilly, try to prioritize family life. 

“These boys are like best friends and I hope that relationship continues even when they start going to a school where they’re in different grades,” said Mary, adding, “And that they have a really solid sense of being part of our family first.” 

Related story:Northern Virginia's affordable housing crisis

Family was a big reason Daniel, who grew up in Vienna, and Mary, a Dallas native, decided to settle in Northern Virginia. “This family circle of community is definitely a part of why we’re able to be here,” said Mary. “If we moved to someplace cheaper, we’d be trading away the family relationships.”

Mary and Daniel starting dating while attending the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. They were married in Texas and lived with Daniel’s parents after having their first son. “(Daniel’s mom) especially really encouraged me (to stay at home), (saying) since you’re already with family, just stay home with him and see how it goes, and that just rolled into the rest of our lives,” said Mary. 

Their first place of their own was a three-bedroom, one-bathroom co-op in Burke. “Because it’s sort of an unusual financial structure, especially for the area, it tends to be cheaper,” said Daniel. They slowly made improvements, and four years later, moved into their current home, which had more space but was still relatively close to Daniel’s parents. “When buying the house, we just had to accept that housing here is very expensive and our priority was to find some place we wouldn’t have to move out of,” said Mary. 

The other reason to return to the area was Daniel’s alma mater, The Heights School in Potomac, Md., where they hope to send their boys. The couple likes the school’s single-sex environment, the liberal arts education and the strong faith formation. The connections Daniel made at the school have served him well post-graduation, too. “All my jobs came through people I knew at The Heights,” said Daniel, who now works in government consulting in addition to serving in the National Guard.

The couple’s current financial priority is to save for school, and for whatever else their growing family needs. “This would be a great time to be putting away as much as possible into retirement, but we also need to save for a new car because one more kid and we don’t fit in our minivan,” said Mary. “Secular peers would have more of a sense of what their family size will be, but we have a fuzzier sense of what that will be, so you have to plan for those contingencies.”

The Gonzalez Family

Jerome Gonzalez had a college degree and a good job, but he felt his career wasn’t going anywhere. So with his wife Barbara’s encouragement, he began to look into different graduate schools. Jerome decided on a two-year degree in city and regional planning at Rutgers University after seeing the school’s generous financial aid package. Barbara got a grant writing job at a nearby Catholic hospital and the couple moved to Piscataway, N. J.

Barbara, 30, a graduate of Seton School in Manassas who grew up in Dumfries, and Jerome, 31, a Fort Worth, Texas, native, met in Washington through a Catholic service organization. After dating for two years, the couple got engaged and were married six months later at St. Peter Church on Capitol Hill. They had their daughter Edith, now 1, while living in New Jersey. 

The couple always hoped Barbara would eventually be able to stay home with their children but didn’t expect it happen so soon. “The way the maternity leave worked out in New Jersey I would’ve had to go back after six weeks instead of 12 and that just didn’t seem plausible. When you make the decision to breastfeed, for one, that’s a very time-consuming thing,” she said. “We had been thinking that would be the long-term plan and then when she came, we said, we can make this work.” Barbara now does grant writing part-time from home. 

After he graduated, Jerome found a job in Haymarket. The townhouse they rent is a 10-minute walk from his office. “We were open to buying if it made more sense, but then this place came available,” said Jerome. “That made renting a great way to work and also a way to get the lay of the land for long-term housing decisions.”

The couple would love to send Edith and any other children they may have to Catholic schools, but at this point they think homeschooling will be more financially feasible for them. They’re grateful their parish, Holy Trinity Church in Gainesville, has a strong support system for homeschooling families. “My mom homeschooled me through eighth grade, so I know the benefits and the challenges firsthand. From what I saw, it’s something that’s so countercultural, it’s not something you can do alone — you need support,” said Barbara. “Our number one priority is educating her in the faith.”

The Gonzalez family tries to make following their faith a motivating factor in their decisions — living within their means, tithing to church and the needy, and frequenting the sacraments. But it’s easier said than done to buck some cultural trends. When asked if she thinks they live differently than other non-Catholics their age, Barbara wasn’t sure.

“I think honestly that’s a question we ask ourselves during the examination of conscience, because are we any different? We’re supposed to be,” said Barbara. “(We try to) reject a lot of consumerism in the culture. A lot of the decisions about where to live or what’s next (for us), it's more based on what is God's plan for our family than, gee, what are the Jones’ doing?”

“Just discerning (God’s) will for whatever,” said Jerome. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019