By Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller - OSV Newsweekly, 4/22/2012
Roberta Reifsnyder wanted to go to college to become a nurse, then get married and have eight children. Plans changed when her faith was challenged by students who didn’t share her Catholic beliefs, and she started to realize that “something was missing.”
Halfway through Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa., she felt a call to vocation, but knew that she couldn’t enter a community with student loans hanging over her head.
“I wondered what I could do, how I could finish college and not have any debt,” she said. “My concern was in losing the vocation.”
Reifsnyder, 23, is a second-year postulant with the Sisters of Christian Charity in Mendham, N.J. She also is a school nurse, a job that she needs to help her pay off nearly $80,000 in student loans.
“The time for my novitiate is coming up pretty quick, possibly in August,” she said. “I don’t know what will happen because I am still paying my loan.”
Reifsnyder is among an estimated 32 percent of serious enquirers to religious life who have a college debt. According to a study conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., the average debt at the time of inquiry is $28,000, and $20,000 at the time of formal application.
The recently released study, “Educational Debt and Vocations to Religious Life,” was prepared as a report for the National Religious Vocation Conference. It was initiated last June when CARA mailed surveys to 865 religious institutes and received completed responses from 477, or 56 percent.
“What I found surprising is that [education debt] is so endemic,” said Mary Gautier, CARA senior research associate. “I realized that this is a serious issue nationwide, but I was somewhat surprised to find that a third of all applicants to religious life come with educational debt.”
Project director Kathleen Mahoney calls it “the new anti-dowry” that is affecting young people across the board, regardless of their goals.
“They are coming out of college with so much debt that they are delaying marriage,” she said. “They are delaying having children or purchasing a home. And we know that it is becoming an impediment to joining a religious community, and sometimes that has to be delayed. And sometimes they are simply not able to join.”
Later vocations play into it, too, when the average age for entering religious life is now 30.
“Seventy percent have a college education and many had to secure loans to get that education,” Mahoney said. “You come with negative wealth and people are too poor to take the vow of poverty.”
According to the report, 55 percent of institutions have an increase in applicants with education debt, and in those that had at least one formal applicant in the last 10 years, two in three turned no one away because of it. However, a quarter of men’s institutes turned away nearly half who had educational debt, and another fifth turned away more than 75 percent with educational debt.
“This issue highlights one aspect of the complexity of the religious vocation question in this country,” said Holy Cross Brother Paul Bednarczyk, NRVC executive director. “The national education debt problem is definitely impeding young women and men from pursuing life as a religious priest, sister or brother.”
Some institutions are willing to take on the debt, Gautier noted, but one-fifth of those that do experience financial strain.
“It’s not just causing problems for individuals,” she said.
Reifsnyder’s applications were turned down by two organizations that help aspirants with educational debt, and she is not sure about what can be worked out with the Sisters of Christian Charity. She recognizes her student loan “will be a burden” on the community.
“I’m trying to save as much as I can so that I can still make my loan payments as a sister,” she said. “Maybe I’ll work in one of our hospitals and I can still pay as I work.”
But in the schedule of formation, there would be a year when she could not work at all.
Meanwhile, she is grateful for the support she’s received and is praying to persevere.
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.
Ways to Pay (additional sidebar)
In 2010, Patrick Caruso, a third-year student at St. Paul Seminary in Pittsburgh, and a group of fellow seminarians, priests and sisters signed up to run in the Pittsburgh Marathon. They were looking for a cause to support and found one when a friend entering religious life asked for help in paying off student loans.
“Prior to this, I would have never known there was such an issue,” he told OSV by email from the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
From that grew Run For Nuns, which raised more than $25,000 in two years and also raised awareness, Caruso said, “that there were many people that want to give their life to the Lord, but are hindered by college debt.”
One of them was Sister Alicia Torres, a novice with the Franciscans of the Eucharist in Chicago, who established The Nun Run to pay a $90,000 student loan. “You just have to persevere,” she advised financially burdened aspirants.
Some discerners with student debt hold fundraisers like spaghetti dinners, candy sales and raffles. Others seek help from Catholic organizations, for instance, the Knights of Columbus.
Anna Ciarrone, 26, of Parma, Ohio, graduated from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, with a bachelor’s degree in history and theology, and about $20,000 in student loans and other debts.
When she and her friend Amanda Houska felt called to enter the Franciscan Sisters of Third Order Regular of the Penance of the Sorrowful Mother in Toronto, Ohio, they came up with creative ways to pay off their debts.
“In October 2010, we decided to go on a fundraising campaign that we called Support Good Habits,” Ciarrone said. “We started a website and created a Facebook page about our cause and started asking for help.”
They planned a New Year’s Eve benefit concert at her parish, and in April 2011, held a spaghetti dinner. Runners also supported them in the Cleveland Marathon.
“The news media got hold of our cause and Dan Miller from Cleveland made a donation of $20,000,” she said. “I never cease to be amazed at the generous support that we got.”
Ciarrone is now a postulant and Houska is living with the order as an affiliate, and continuing to discern.
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