By Effie Caldarola
Attorney struggles to pay off student loans to enter cloistered monastery
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.- Like many young urban professionals, Anchorage attorney Tara Clemens is gradually chipping away at her burdensome student loans.

Unlike everybody else in town, though, Clemens’ motive for paying off the debt has to do with a desire to become a cloistered Dominican nun.

Having already been accepted into the Dominican convent in Menlo Park, Calif., Clemens has been forced to put her religious vocation on hold until she pays off the debt.

Clemens, who has been profiled in two previous Catholic Anchor articles, is not alone in her situation of having to postpone a religious vocation because of large student debt.

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, one third of people inquiring about potential study at Catholic training institutions already had student debt averaging $28,000. Although some dioceses and religious orders are willing to help with debt, it’s a financial burden few can carry. Given that many enter religious life at an older age with advanced degrees, student debt is a growing obstacle to religious vocations.

Clemens, however, speaks with optimism about her present situation and her desire to enter the cloister. Raised as an evangelical Christian, in college she found herself searching for the right church. She asked God to lead her.

When a classmate invited her to Mass she went, confident it would verify her conviction that the Catholic Church was the wrong church. Instead God began to pull her towards conversion, and she entered the Catholic Church in 2008.

“I’ve been discerning religious life ever since I entered,” Clemens told the Catholic Anchor.

And she felt called to the Menlo Park Monastery, where she found a profound sense of peace in the monastic community, which she visited several times before making her decision to apply. She was accepted by the order for her aspirancy, in which she spent a month living in the cloister.

But then it was back to work to get rid of the debt that’s standing between her and the Dominican community. She’s living with her parents to cut costs.

Although Clemens’ parents are not Catholic, she says they’re supportive.

“I love my family, and I know how much they love me,” she said. “Ultimately they want me to be happy.”

Keeping in touch with her new religious family is important to Clemens as well.

“I keep up with the nuns through correspondence and email,” she said. “This year I’ve been down to visit twice, with another trip planned this fall.”

A native of Wasilla, she grew up and did her post-high school education in Washington and Oregon. After college she worked for an Anchorage law firm, briefly founded her own firm, and now she works as a paralegal, all the while chipping away at a mountain of debt, which at one point topped $114,000. She has reduced that to under $100,000 and hopes her involvement with the Laboure Society will pave the way for what she feels is her true calling.

The very existence of the Laboure Society underscores the growing problem of pursuing a religious vocation while straining under oppressive student debt. Founded in 2003 by two Minnesota Catholic businessmen, the Laboure Society is a non-profit organization that has assisted over 230 people in paying off loans before entering religious life.

Clemens belongs to an “aspirant class” at Laboure. Stories about Clemens and the 10 other people in her Laboure group are on the organization’s website. Members of her class met in Minnesota, and they continue to support each other through correspondence, calls and prayer.

“We all meet once a month via telephone. It’s been a way to support each other, and build our relationship as the Body of Christ.”

Each member of her Laboure class has a goal to raise $45,000 this year. Clemens has about $38,000 to go. Grant determinations will be made in January or February, and Clemens has her hopes set on a positive outcome.

With the crushing debt burden and the realization that she won’t be practicing law, does she regret her law school education?

“Sometimes, because of the debt, I wonder,” she said thoughtfully. “But I see how God used my law school education to bring me to the Catholic Church. Law school teaches you to think analytically, and it developed my logic and reasoning skills. This helped me in my search for the truth.”

Posted with permission from Catholic Anchor, official publication of the Archdiocese of Anchorage.

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