Denver Newsroom, Jul 18, 2020 / 04:00 am (CNA).- When the coronavirus pandemic necessitated widespread shutdowns, Catholic parishes were among those to feel the financial pinch almost immediately. No people in the pews meant no money in the collection basket. Mass after Mass, weekend after weekend, that loss added up.
Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Denver, Colorado is one such parish whose already-precarious financial situation was thrown in jeopardy by the pandemic.
To keep paying his small staff, Fr. Joseph Lajoie applied for a Payment Protection Program (PPP) loan through the Small Business Administration. The loans were meant to support the essential needs of small businesses and nonprofits affected by coronavirus shutdowns.
An article from the Associated Press published last week criticized the “U.S. Roman Catholic Church” for reportedly accepting between $1.4-$3.5 billion work of PPP loans. In fact, there is no single entity that is the U.S. Roman Catholic Church. Rather, each parish operates as its own small nonprofit, and weekly donations help to employ the priest, along with the employees who maintain the parish and its ministries.
Sacred Heart Parish has three part-time employees, and a three-ring binder in which it keeps track of its 500-some registered families.
“In some ways our parish is very archaic,” Fr. Jajoie told CNA.
He dreams of someday hiring a maintenance manager.
“I have a 100 year-old church without a maintenance guy,” he noted.
Though it is located in Denver’s gentrifying, “hipster” neighborhood of RiNo (River North), Lajoie said Sacred Heart is a small, poor parish with no online donation portal and has been “limping along” through the pandemic.
When Lajoie applied for the loans, the priest had no grand visions for what he would do with the money.
The needs of the parish are pretty “bare bones,” and Lajoie said he used the loan to keep paying the salaries of his employees – a secretary, a bookkeeper, and a director of religious education – whose incomes help support their families.
Masses are back at the parish now, but at a lower capacity to accommodate social distancing.
“Right now, because of the reduced Mass schedule that we have, we’re just under about 50% of our normal parish income. So we’re limping along, but it could be a lot worse,” Lajoie said.
Fr. Lajoie said by applying for the federal loan, he was not trying to pad his bottom line. He was simply trying to keep his employees, well, employed.
“I wanted to do my best to support these employees, and I would have done it even without the loan, even to the detriment of the parish, because I feel at least we showed them some gratitude” for their work, Lajoie said. “Because being here as a pastor for a year and dealing with the shutdown, I don’t know what I would do (without them). They’re definitely quite essential to the needs of this parish.”
Lajoie said he hoped people understand that parishes are small businesses with employees who pay taxes and need to keep their jobs, and that they are not part of huge corporations.
“Parishes have employees, who are working, who need jobs. As far as my parish is concerned, we are using this money to help some people who are part of families. We are using this money the same way that a for-profit business is using money, which also helps their bottom line. As far as I’m concerned, what we’re doing…it’s to benefit working people, who themselves pay taxes,” he said. “We’re using this to help people the same way that a for-profit helps their employees,” he said.
“I think that more parishes can be trusted to actually care about people in all of this, than some companies out there who are willing to…cut jobs, because they’re not making a profit anymore. I mean, the church will still exist if they’re not making a profit. If the church isn’t making a profit at a certain point, the buildings themselves will have to close because they can’t keep the lights on.”
The parish of Christ the King in Oklahoma City is more than three times the size of Sacred Heart. The parish has 1,800 families, and a school that educates 520 children. Between full-time and part-time employees, Fr. Rick Stansberry said the parish and school employ 78 people.
When the pandemic shut down Masses at the parish, Stansberry said one of the members of his finance committee encouraged him to apply for the PPP loan so that the parish wouldn’t have to fire anyone.
“Once everything was shut down, our collection dropped pretty quick, since people weren’t coming to church,” Stansberry told CNA.
“In our parish, a lot of people are tied into the oil and gas industry, and lots of people were losing jobs. And so all of a sudden they found themselves without jobs, having to feed their families. Some were not able to pay tuition. Obviously they weren’t able to tithe to the church,” he said.
“I didn’t want to have to lay people off and contribute to the problem. And some of our part-time (employees) are more vulnerable in the sense that they really depended on the jobs that they had to eat. I didn’t want to lay people off,” Stansberry said.
The part-time employees “were the ones that were the most grateful that we got the loan.”
The loans granted to parishes as well as other nonprofits and small businesses through the PPP loan could be used for salaries, utilities, rent and other necessities. Stansberry said his parish loan was used “100% for salaries.”
With the recent phased reopenings of Masses, Stansberry said that donations have “kind of stabilized” again, but that the financial situation of the parish and its school is a “moving target” right now, especially with all of the uncertainty surrounding the quickly approaching school year.
The school is working on a 40-page document detailing reopening plans with social distancing and masks and frequent disinfection of the school, which itself “has added thousands of dollars to our janitorial bill.”
But if something changes and reopening becomes impossible, it puts the future of many Catholic schools – and their employees – in jeopardy, Stansberry noted.
“If we can’t reopen in person, I think we’re going to lose a lot of Catholic schools, because parents are saying, ‘Well, why am I going to pay tuition to do virtual (Catholic) school when I can do the public one for free?’”
Stansberry said his parish also has some important ministries, such as those that feed the homeless, or help needy families with food assistance, that would have been cut had the parish not qualified for the PPP loan.
And the priest said he wanted to keep his employees paid and his ministries operational.
“By having this money to pay salaries, we did not have to cut back on the mobile meals program or helping to provide food for a needy family. That would have all had to have been cut too. The people that I think that are being critical (about parishes receiving loans) don’t really know how a church works.”