When Christina Chavez knew God was calling her to join the Congregation of Divine Providence in San Antonio, Texas she faced one big hurdle: student loan debt. Fortunately her community found financial aid from the National Catholic Fund for Religious Vocations, which took over her student loan payments while she is in formation for religious life. “Without the grant, I would probably still be teaching at a Catholic school, trying to pay down my loans,” Sister Christina said. “I had a 10-year plan, and I probably could have done it a little sooner, but I wouldn’t be done yet.” The number of women and men discerning religious life in the United States is on the increase but college loan debt often holds them back from entering, said Mark Teresi, director of NCFRV. Because religious communities are self-supporting, most cannot take on a candidate’s college debt. The fund estimates that more than 1,000 vocations have been lost in the past 10 years because of debt. It was for that reason that the Chicago-based NCFRV, was established in 2014, through an endowment from the Conrad Hilton Foundation. Religious institutes apply to the fund for candidates entering their communities with debt. The fund makes quarterly payments to the communities until the candidates’ final profession or ordination. A 2012 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that a third of people discerning religious life had an average of $28,000 in college debt. “It’s a real issue. Anybody I’ve talked to about this issue is shocked,” Teresi said. “You’re looking at vocation directors who are trying to do their job. They may have a wonderful candidate right there who has $35,000 or $45,000 in debt. The order can’t handle it.” If candidates decide to leave the community he or she resumes paying the debt on their loans. “But in good faith the fund is saying, ‘Wait a minute. If the order picks these people, they’ve vetted them.’ In the best spirit of vocation we’re saying yes to this vocation. It’s not our place to judge if the person continues. It’s our place to say we want this person to take that journey,” Teresi said. In November NCFRV awarded $200,000 in grants to 10 communities for the debt of 10 candidates. The communities also contribute to the payments. “There’s a singular vocation out there that you can have an impact on if you support this fund,” Teresi said. “I always say, ‘You don’t know if there’s another Mother Teresa there or Sister Helen Prejean. You don’t know.” “Educational debt is an issue in society,” said Divine Providence Sister Joyce Detzel, vocation director for Sister Christina’s congregation. “Sisters have always been pioneers, and they’ve always been on the cutting edge of societal issues.” In years past, most communities educated their young members; now, new members are generally college graduates when they enter. Detzel knows of young women working two jobs, or giving up jobs in ministry for more lucrative private-sector employment, in hopes of being able to enter religious life sooner. Sister Christina graduated from Texas Tech with a relatively modest $27,000 in loans in 2012. She never considered that the debt might stop her from becoming a religious sister, if only because she never seriously considered becoming a sister at all. When she met some sisters on a retreat the idea crossed her mind, she said, but she thought, “Nobody does that anymore.” But the idea came back after the priest who celebrated her grandmother’s funeral preached about Mary devoting her life to God, and when she started looking around, a series of coincidences (“I used to think it was random — now I know it was providence,” she said) led her to the community in San Antonio. She had become an affiliate and was resigned to waiting until her debt was cleared to move further when the congregation suggested they try to get the NCFRV grant. It covers her monthly payments while she’s in formation; if she discerns that she is not called to a religious vocation, she will resume her payments. “It’s important that I can discern freely,” Sister Christina said. Sister Joyce said the Congregation of Divine Providence is exploring the possibility of creating an endowment that could assist more young women who are discerning vocations and are ready to move ahead in their formation, but it’s too soon to know whether that will be possible. But something, she said, has to be done. “As a vocation director, it breaks my heart to see a young woman come and I believe and she believes and the congregation believes that she could be a Sister of Providence, and we have to turn her away,” she said. “People think there are no vocations out there, and that’s not true. I refuse to believe God gives calls and there is no solution to this problem. There always have been obstacles. We have to find ways to overcome them.” For information or to donate, visit www.nfcrv.org.