Leaning In to a Vocation
At 10 years old, Alice Snee had a dream that God was calling her to be a teacher and a missionary.
But Snee’s vocation was nearly sidelined by student debt.
“Law school is a little pricey,” said Snee, 37, who attended Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Fla., and worked as an attorney before a restless heart prompted her to pursue a teaching job and then seek out a religious community.
Stalled by student loans
But before her discernment with the Society of St. Teresa could begin, Snee had to pay down tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. It was a daunting task, but not impossible as she learned from the Labouré Society.
“I firmly believe the Labouré Society was part of God’s plan in my vocation story. God used it as a tool to help me grow,” said Snee, who is now a postulant with the Society of St. Teresa, a religious order dedicated to teaching and working with children.
Founded in 2003 by Minnesota businessman Cy Laurent, the Labouré Society has worked with dozens of aspiring priests and religious brothers and sisters over the years to pay down student loans so they can enter the seminary, the convent or friary. Aspirants accepted to the society’s program have an average of about $60,000 in student loans.
“Student loans weren’t an issue in the past, but they’re everywhere now and affect almost every family,” said Ted Daley, the Laboure’ Society’s marketing director.
With college tuition and fee increases far outpacing wage growth, families across the United States are increasingly reliant on loans to finance a college education. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, college graduates leave school on average with about $30,000 in loans.
In many cases, however, college graduates are carrying upwards of $100,000 in loans. That debt not only saddles young people entering the job market, but it also hinders religious and priestly vocations. Dioceses and religious orders — many of them with budgets already stretched to the limits — vary in their ability to assist people with student loans.
Legate working with aspirants to meet their goals
“I believe there are a thousand, if not more, vocations waiting to enter religious life, but are held back by debt,” said John Feltl, a member of Legatus’ Twin Cities Chapter who runs an investment firm in Minnesota.
Feltl also serves as an accountability partner for the Labouré Society. In that role, Feltl works with the program’s aspirants and keeps them accountable as they go about the work of fundraising. But Feltl says the program transforms fundraising into evangelization as the aspirants share their vocation stories with potential benefactors.
One young man who Feltl mentored has taken religious vows as a Benedictine monk in Norcia, Italy.
“That young man is an inspiration,” Feltl said. “How many of us get to talk to these people as they are discerning their vocation to religious life, and to see them develop and to tell others about it, and bring others along with them on their journey?”
Basics of the program
Before beginning the six-month program, the Labouré Society aspirants fly out to the organization’s Minnesota headquarters for an intensive four-day “boot camp” where they learn the basics of fundraising and biblically based philanthropy. Follow-up video conferences, training sessions, weekly phone calls and visits with accountability partners speak to the program’s comprehensiveness.
“There is a book written on the idea of fundraising as a mission, fundraising as a calling, to give these aspiring vocations some other way to understand that it’s okay to ask for support,” said Feltl, who added that fundraising and sales jobs have in large part been denigrated in modern society.
“Money has turned into an evil to be abhorred,” Feltl said. “You have to give these poor kids some tools to understand that it’s okay to ask for support.”
Early on in the process, aspirants are asked to identify up to 100 potential benefactors.
The aspirants write letters notifying benefactors that they will be calling to set up a face-to-face meeting, where the aspirants introduce themselves and share their vocation stories.
The aspirants will politely ask for support, but even if the benefactor cannot commit financially, the aspirants will ask how they can pray for them.
“It’s really between God and that person, not the aspirant and that person,” Daley said. “A lot of the stress goes away when the aspirants don’t so much focus on money as they do on the relationship with that potential benefactor, opening the door and having that conversation. It’s really between God and that person if they give and how much they give. As an aspirant, you can’t control that, nor do you want to. It’s not your say.”
Fundraising as ministry in itself
Snee, who describes herself as a natural introvert, said she was initially intimidated by the idea of fundraising, and added that she was out of her comfort zone for the two six-month program sessions she completed. With the help and advice of her accountability partner, Snee said she not only saw the Holy Spirit working on her benefactors, but also in herself.
“I began to see what I was doing less as fundraising and more as a ministry,” she said. “It’s made me more charitable and my attitude toward charity has increased. My capacity to love has grown. It’s helped me to open my eyes that this is how God works in the world.”
Bill Duffert, 28, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of MinneapolisSt. Paul, said the relationships formed between aspirant and benefactor are mutually beneficial.
“Those are relationships I hope and pray I will continue to have, God willing, into my priestly life,” said Duffert, who is on track to be ordained a priest in 2021. Before discerning a priestly vocation, Duffert was a school teacher with plans of one day getting married and raising a family.
“But there was a stirring in my heart that God might be calling me to become a priest. It was just a quiet, persistent stirring that just wouldn’t go away,” said Duffert, who worried that his student loans would prevent his vocation.
Duffert had no previous fundraising experience before joining the Labouré Society.
“It is definitely a humbling experience to ask someone for help, no matter what that entails, but especially when you’re asking for financial support,” Duffert said. “It’s humbling to put yourself in a vulnerable situation and invite someone into your vocation story, to ask for their financial support and prayers.”
If he is ultimately ordained to the priesthood, Duffert said he hopes to express his gratitude to the men and women who made it possible. Said Duffert, “I’d want to say to them, ‘Thank you so much. You got me to this place. You made it possible for me to go to formation and be ordained a priest.’”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.