“Yes, there is a vocation crisis, but we have to realize student loans are a substantial inhibitor to our vocations and the people wanting to give their lives,” said Norvilia Etienne, a college student in her final year of study at Queens College.
Last February, the parishioner from Holy Family, Fresh Meadows, petitioned to enter the religious community of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. After evaluation, she was accepted into the order. Except there was one catch – she must be free from any financial debt, including student loans, before she could enter as a candidate.
“I want people to know that it is a problem, first of all,” Etienne said. “It’s a problem and it’s affecting a lot of people who are wanting to become religious.”
A 2012 study by CARA for the National Religious Vocation Conference found that while most religious institutes have a written policy or accepted practice on educational debt, 70 percent of the religious communities where more than three candidates had educational debt reported turning someone away. In the same study, 80 percent of those communities asked potential candidates to delay their application because of debt.
Not all religious institutes have the capacity to take on the educational debt of candidates and according to the same study, some assume the debt and pay it off over time or ask candidates to defer their loans. A small number pay interest on the student loans until the member professes perpetual vows.
When Etienne graduates next spring, the unpaid debt from her undergraduate degree would pose a potential roadblock to joining religious life. So her Benedictine Sisters introduced her to The Laboure Society, a non-profit that helps people who want to join religious life or the priesthood by raising funds to pay off their loans.
Sitting inside a booth at a Fresh Meadows diner, the rising college senior displayed characteristics most students portray during summer break – easy-going, calm and hungry for adventure. Her laugh was infectious as she dived her fork into a vegetarian omelet as big as the hat on her head.
“It’s $60,000 dollars,” she said. “That’s what I’m gutting for. It would be great if I had one benefactor write me a $60,000 check and then it would be over! I can enter the convent!”
The price tag comes from a fundraising pool that averages the amount each candidate must strive to reach even if they owe more or less money. Etienne is one student in a class of 17 whom their diocese or religious community has accepted, but who lack the financial freedom to enter. With assistance from The Laboure Society, their donations will be doled out among the class and applied to students’ loans over a set time period.
In an email to The Tablet, Laboure’s Director of Admissions Maritza Sanchez stated that their organization assisted candidates from a variety of backgrounds including doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, lawyers, teachers, therapists and even artists.
One wonders what goes through the mind of a college student who not only has her final year of studies to undergo, but on top of that, must raise thousands of dollars to join an order of singing, and Billboard chart-topping, Benedictine nuns?
It’s simple: hope.
“I just want to enter,” she said. “I just want to give my life to Him and whatever amount anyone could give would go a very long way.”
Every time the waitress stopped by Etienne’s table, her manners were evident with every “thank you” and “please” peppered in between her big smile. One would never guess that hidden deep within that lively, confident young woman was a desire to dedicate her entire life to Jesus Christ as a cloistered nun – praying in particular for more vocations to the priesthood.
“I kind of want my life not to make sense if there isn’t a God, so the only way my life could make sense, is that there is a God,” she explained. “To be honest, I didn’t know that before, but the cloistered life makes no sense if there is no God. It doesn’t. It just doesn’t. That’s the truth. It’s the fact of the matter.”
It wasn’t as easy as pie for Etienne to say ‘yes’ to living a life secluded from the outside world. She originally thought her bubbly personality would work well as a sister working in the trenches of a specific community. For months, she spent countless hours watching different nun videos on YouTube during her quest to find the congregation that would be a good fit. Whether it was divine intervention, or inspiration from one of her favorite saints and also a cloistered nun, St. Therese of Lisieux, Etienne finally narrowed her selection and came across the Benedictine Sisters. When she visited their motherhouse outside of Kansas City, Mo., a sense of peace overcame her. That’s when she knew it was home.
But her vocation to the religious life was not a straight path. When she first came to New York, she was a teenager and a cradle Catholic immigrant from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. At that point, she recalled that faith felt burdensome. Her grandmother prayed for nearly 40 years that someone in her family would join religious life. Etienne couldn’t empathize. She went to Mass every Sunday out of duty, not a personal relationship with God.
Meanwhile, she excelled in the classroom. Despite achieving academic success in college, she felt a deep emptiness. This irking restlessness for purpose prompted Etienne to action.
“St. John Paul II says ‘if you want to do, you must first learn how to be,’ that is, with Jesus in the Eucharist. So Adoration is very important for action,” she said.
During a young adult gathering at Catholic Underground, she decided to pour her heart out at eucharistic adoration. It was after that personal encounter with Christ that she gained a sense of peace. Not too long after, Etienne found herself on a pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland. She experienced the sacrament of reconciliation with a cardinal who told her that the longing of her heart’s desire had a purpose and she must find that purpose.
Affirmation after affirmation confirmed she was heading in the right direction and she had a special boost thanks to the help of another special woman in her life.
“It’s because of Our Lady,” she said. “I’ll put everything on it. This is a huge part of my discernment journey – the consecration to Jesus through Mary using the 33 Days to Morning Glory preparations,” she said. “After I consecrated myself to Jesus through Mary, graces started coming in where I could follow the will of the Lord.”
More moments of clarity occurred and that’s when life got a little more interesting.
“I remember distinctly saying, ‘Oh no, my grandmother has prayed me into being a nun!”
Following the will of the Lord not only meant her discernment into religious life, but also included combating a different battle when she got back to New York. Etienne met members of the pro-life organization Students For Life and while hesitant at first, she helped start her campus’ first pro-life group. Except the idea was met with opposition from the school – the administration didn’t approve.
“I could never imagine that I would challenge my college in starting a pro-life club. Me? No,” she said.
It wasn’t until after the Queens College officials received her litigation that the board approved her group.
Even before the lawsuit, Etienne sought the guidance from another key person in her life, her spiritual director Father Christopher O’Connor, pastor, from Blessed Mary Help of Christians-St.Mary’s, in Woodside. He still plays a part in her discernment process.
“I love him to pieces,” she said.
Fast-forward a year and the young woman once filled with restlessness was cool, calm and collected, hanging out in a Queens’ diner before her next meeting with a potential benefactor. Her ‘yes’ to God’s will in her life brought her to Poland and even to the White House. She took many selfies with Vice President Mike Pence as a Student For Life representative.
Fast-forward one more year later and with the help of the Church she wants to serve, and those willing to give her a chance, she might be able to again say ‘yes’ as Norvilia, the novice.
Editor’s Note: For Etienne’s fundraiser story, visit: https://labouresociety.org/norvilia-etienne
Read Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio’s letter to Norvilia: here.