Vocations of women religious
Before the convent: Student debt delays Gretchen Erlichman’s entrance to religious life
Dec 17, 2019
Gretchen Erlichman was accepted to enter the religious order of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist this past year, but her entrance has been postponed until August 2020. The issue? Her student debt.
An increasing number of individuals who have discerned a call to religious life or the priesthood are forced to delay their entrance in order to pay off their student loans, often an expense the religious order is unable to take on itself.
Erlichman is a member of the Labouré Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting religious vocations by helping candidates pay off their student loans. A class of 16 people who have been accepted to religious orders and diocesan seminaries works throughout a six month period to raise donations which will then be divided among them and put toward their student loans.
“Although overcoming debt is a cross to bear, it’s a gift from God,” Erlichman said, adding that the opportunity to fundraise at parishes allows her to share her story with others. “The Church is alive and well. God uses this to let them know of His love.”
Erlichman grew up in upstate New York as the second of four girls in a devout Catholic home. Homeschooling allowed her to attend daily Mass, and she excelled at music from a young age. She said her family life and their frequent reception of the sacraments nourished her faith.
Receiving her undergraduate degree from Nazareth College of Rochester, New York in music performance and then her master’s degree from Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, Erlichman said that despite her academic success, something did not seem right.
“I realized I had done everything that I wanted to do with my life, and it felt like something was missing,” she said. “I wanted to give back to the faith I had been distracted from.”
Erlichman then applied to the doctorate in musicology program at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
“I still had this thirst to keep engaging in the faith,” she said. “While growing, (there was an) unquenchable desire to form my life around Christ.”
Being a student at The Catholic University of America allowed Erlichman to build her schedule with frequent visits to the chapel and Mass, where she began asking what God wanted of her.
“In spending time with the Lord more often, I felt a tug that I need to do something more,” she said. “… Naturally, without even thinking, my desires helped me form my life around Christ.”
Erlichman said she felt a call from the Lord, “to be His spouse, and a mother to all children.”
“God gives us grace to do His will in our life,” she said.
Knowing the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist who live in residence as students on Catholic University’s campus, Erlichman saw “their joy was very similar to the joy I was experiencing,” she said.
“I feel a fulfillment of love,” she said. “I had dispersed my love in so many places, but now (my call involves) bringing that love to Christ and letting Him disperse it.”
She applied to the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, and was accepted. But before she enters, Erlichman must pay off her student loans. Currently, Erlichman is a teaching fellow at Catholic University while taking some credits that will go toward her doctorate, following the suggestion of the mother superior of her future order.
As a member of the Labouré Society, Erlichman joins a class of other individuals actively seeking entry into a religious community who are blocked from entry due to student loans. The society works with the class to educate them in Catholic-based philanthropy and how they can work with donors to share their vocation stories and evangelize through their fundraising efforts. Since 2003, the Labouré Society has helped more than 300 individuals enter formation to become priests and religious, raising $8 million.
“God-willing, I will enter in August,” Erlichman said.
(To contribute to Gretchen Erlichman’s cause, you can make a donation on rescuevocations.org/gretchen.)