When Emily Davis graduated last year from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, she had to delay her dream of entering the nearby Franciscan Sisters (Third Order Regular) of the Penance of the Sorrowful Mother because she owed $20,000 in student loans.
A year teaching Catholic school didn't quite pay it off. Then one sister suggested that she run the Pittsburgh Marathon as a fundraiser.
"I said, 'You've got to be kidding. I've never run more than 5 miles in my entire life,' " said Ms. Davis, 22. "Then I thought, hey, go big or go home. I have enough discipline for the training."
She will run the full marathon, with five sisters in full habit running in relay alongside her. Her cause was also taken up by seven Pittsburgh seminarians and at least three priests, who had already organized their own Run for Nuns, at www.runfornuns.com, to help women in her situation.
"I was really touched when I found out about it. It's such a beautiful expression of support," Ms. Davis said.
Major races have become such popular fundraisers that the Pittsburgh Marathon website has instructions for how to use it that way. Debt-laden would-be nuns, who have no way to pay off loans once they take a vow of poverty, are a new but growing niche in sponsored causes.
Last year Alicia Torres of Chicago garnered national media attention for her efforts. Her website, www.thenunrun.com, updates readers on how she's run her $94,000 debt down to $46,937 in less than a year. She will run in Pittsburgh, and will be among the beneficiaries of the Pittsburgh priests and seminarians.
Patrick Caruso, 20, a third-year student at St. Paul Seminary, East Carnegie, started Run for the Nuns before he knew of Ms. Torres, but found her website while setting up his own. Some seminarians planned to run the marathon and he had just floated the idea of running for a cause when he met Claudia Coons.
Ms. Coons, 23, will receive her master's degree in public policy and management from Carnegie Mellon University next month. She had a full scholarship, so no debt hinders her from joining the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Miami on May 31. But when she asked Mr. Caruso for his prayers, she also told him about three young women who wanted to enter with her, but were held back by debt.
Mr. Caruso, who was looking for a cause to run for, had found it.
"The only way I can explain this whole thing is that the Holy Spirit has taken care of all the details," he said. "It came together randomly, through inspiration." In fact, he said, the Holy Spirit has been so hard at work that four of the six women they first pledged to run for have already paid their debts. Three raffled off statues of Our Lady of Lourdes. Another had her payments assumed by the Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations in Arlington, Va.
"College debt is a really huge problem," said Corey Huber, president of the fund.
He and his wife began this work in 2004, when their pastor asked if their family foundation could help a man pay off $40,000 so he could join the Norbertines before reaching their age limit later that year. Three years later they had helped so many others that their foundation was drained and they created Mater Ecclesiae as a public charity.
In six years, the Hubers have received about 120 applications, mostly from people who have tried many other ways to pay loans ranging from $1,000 to more than $100,000. They assisted about 80, though 20 later left their order and resumed their old loan payments.
Mater Ecclesiae will not cover credit card debt, and the applicant must already have a letter of acceptance from a religious community. The fund will also help men who want to become diocesan priests, but it hasn't been necessary because most dioceses provide assistance, he said.
"The only reason we ever turn anyone away is because we can't afford to issue the grant," Mr. Huber said. "Right now we're turning about half of them away."
The fund assumes monthly payments and will pay any remainder on the person's fifth anniversary.
"Most of the people we've given grants to tell us that, if we hadn't given them the grant, they would not be in religious life," Mr. Huber said.
Marathons are part of a wider tradition of fundraising by aspiring nuns and monks, he said. "Before people come to us they've had fundraisers at their parish. They've held bake sales," he said.
Most of Pittsburgh's Run for Nuns team is running a relay.
"Most of us have never run anything significant before," said Benjamin Cahill, 20, a first-year seminarian.
The Franciscan sisters have some experienced runners -- though none has raced in a habit before. Most are novices or postulants, who wear a gray ankle-length jumper over a white blouse, with or without a white veil.
Sister Sophia Grace Huschka ran a half-marathon in Oklahoma City before entering the community in 2007.
Though she had none herself, debt "is definitely a concern for more young women now than it has been in the past" she said.
For many of these women, the effort by the priests and seminarians is more than an act of charity. Several said it illustrates church teaching about how men and women are supposed to care for each other, even when they are celibate.
"Just as we have our earthly families, we have our families in Christ, and our family is the church. These men have decided to support the women in their family," Ms. Coons said. "Men and women should support each other for the good of the church and the good of humanity."
Ann Rodgers: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416. First Published April 29, 2010 4:00 AM