The Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock

Breaking the debt barrier that keeps some from vocation

Laboure Society is one option for potential religious to address their student debt

Published: May 8, 2013   
Aiden Toombs

Minnesota businessman Cy Laurent remembers the moment the Holy Spirit lit a path for what would become his lay ministry, the Laboure Society. Talking to a young woman about a job, she told him she had discerned a vocation but had been stymied by her debts.

Laurent, a devout Catholic, rallied some of his business associates to help pay down the woman’s outstanding debt, allowing her to pursue her vocation.

“It’s been 12 years since she professed her final vows, thanks be to God,” Laurent said. “That experience was quite wonderful, and I started to look around to see if there were others in that situation.”

What Laurent discovered — and what few casual observers realize — is the roadblock debt presents to thousands of potential priestly and religious vocations. While guidelines vary by order, diocese and seminary as to what debt new members are allowed to carry, for many religious orders that number is zero. Such is the case in Arkansas with the Carmelite friars, Benedictine and Olivetan Benedictine sisters, among others.

In other situations, individuals are allowed to have existing student loans but no personal debt such as from credit cards or a mortgage. Many divinity schools observe this guideline, as do the Benedictine monks of Subiaco Abbey who allow new members to enter having educational debt up to $50,000, with the permission of the abbot.

The Diocese of Little Rock also allows seminarians on a case-by-case basis to have educational debt but cannot have any personal debts, said Msgr. Scott Friend, vocations director.

“We are going to work with someone and help them,” he said of school loans.

Even with these exceptions, it is estimated that as many as 10,000 individuals discerning a vocation are turned away due to finances.

In a 2012 study the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found 70 percent of institutes turned at least one person away — a person who in all other aspects has been accepted into the community — because of money issues.

Aiden Toombs knows this quandary firsthand. A native of Washington state, he attended graduate school at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock in the 1990s. At the time, his faith had fallen into disrepair.

“By the time I got to Little Rock, I was a devout atheist,” Toombs said. “But it was at UAMS that I had my conversion experience. I was reading the Bible in my room and I was reading the Gospel of Matthew and it was very clear that Jesus was talking to me directly.”

It wasn’t long before the rekindled Christian spark led him to Catholicism and he attended the Cathedral of St. Andrew. Moving back to Seattle, he joined the Church in 1999 and shortly thereafter, his thoughts turned to a religious life and he began to research different vocational options.

The same problem always arose. Having attained both a law degree and completed graduate work in biology, Toombs’ student loans totaled more than $100,000. While that figure is more than the $45,000 the average vocational aspirant carries, it’s not beyond what Laurent had seen in the 10 years since he launched the not-for-profit Laboure Society.

“We are a national organization with the specific purpose of serving the Church by delivering vocations which would otherwise be lost,” he said.

The Laboure Society assists aspiring religious in addressing their financial situation in several ways. Applicants are thoroughly vetted, including through the order they wish to join. Roughly every six months, those accepted are organized into classes, usually 10 to 15 members in size.

The class is brought together at a three-day financial boot camp where members are taught ethical fundraising skills and work through a strategic plan to tackle the accumulated student loans of the group (personal debt is not addressed by the society’s program).

Laurent said while class members then return to implement the fundraising plan in their home areas, they are not cut adrift. Each class is assigned a mentor who follows up to assess progress and provide support.

“This is a very well-thought out protocol,” he said. “The individual serves as accountability to the team members.”

Once the money has been collected, it is allocated to each team member in the form of grants with the exact amount each team member receives calculated by a comprehensive formula. The society doesn’t issue checks to team members, but takes over management of loan payment schedules. Individuals who don’t receive grants sufficient to wipe out their debt join a second team to participate in additional rounds of fundraising.

The group makes loan payments as long as the individual continues to advance through their vocational path and returns any unpaid principal if a person abandons their vocation. To date, the non-profit organization has helped more than 230 individuals into priestly and religious formation. 

Toombs hopes to soon add to that total. Now living in California, he’s planning to enter the Olivetan Benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of Guadalupe in New Mexico in January. His student loan debt is receding thanks to his fundraising efforts. 

“I credit the people and the spiritual atmosphere in Little Rock with prompting my conversion to Christ and his Church,” he said. “I truly thank God for my time in Little Rock because it was such a turning point. I firmly believe that because of your community, this vocation is coming to fruition, albeit years later.”

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