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How a Catholic parish used its Paycheck Protection Program loan

Looking back over the past four months offers an astonishing perspective. I have done a lot of travel in my life, including a five week pilgrimage on foot, but nothing compares to the journey of being a church worker right now. It’s hard to remember everything, and looking to the future comes with its own challenges. What a reminder to stay grounded in the present moment with God.

When the Covid-19 shutdown began, the parish where I work in upstate New York entered a period of uncertainty. It is an active and prosperous parish, and as a pastoral associate for administration, I am keenly aware of our budget and what it takes to make the parish work. Aside from wages, there are utility bills, regular maintenance of several buildings, parking lot repairs and more. The costs of catechetical materials, technology for daily operations, and liturgical and office supplies add up over time. I was sure that a layoff or a leave was coming.

But despite the suspension of masses, our phones continued to ring. The people had both spiritual and material needs. Sometimes they just sought the comfort of knowing that a light was always on in church for them. But would we be able to continue to be a refuge?

People sought the comfort of knowing that a light was always on in church for them. But would we be able to continue to be a refuge?

Now I can see that the grace of God includes many things, like the generosity of our parishioners. It also includes the federal government’s paycheck protection program. When the opportunity to apply for loans presented itself, I first felt appalled and did not want to pursue it. I was concerned that this was somehow unethical. Yet as the process progressed, and as the person responsible for collecting information and documentation, I began to see things in a new light.

Last week, an Associated Press article spread many misconceptions about the PPP and the Catholic Church. Its headline screamed: “Catholic Church Lobbyed For Taxpayers’ Money, Got $ 1.4 Billion. An accompanying photo of the lavish interior of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City implied that the church was taking funds meant to support small business employment and instead using it for other purposes.

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The visceral reaction to the church receiving such funds was understandable, but the reality is another story. The PA’s false claims resulted in a puzzling article that could only fuel the fires of anger. The author asserted that a typical diocese should not be eligible for the program because as a single entity (which supposedly includes “head offices, parishes and other branches”), its membership exceeds 500 employees. This claim helped create a highly clickable story, but it was inaccurate. In fact, not-for-profit and faith-based groups have been granted a waiver of the 500-employee cap that still applies to private sector companies requesting assistance. Additionally, each parish was eligible to apply for PPP funds individually. I estimate that the majority of parishes in the Diocese of Albany have fewer than 20 employees each. If the purpose of the AP article was to inform, it failed.

The visceral reaction to the church receiving such funds was understandable, but the reality is another story.

The anger generated by the article exposed the misunderstanding of the church’s financial structure and management. The lack of clarity on these things is often due to the fact that the church is not clear about its structures and finances, but the journalist’s job was to reveal the truth, and it was not.

What happened at the diocesan level is unknown to me, but I can explain how an individual parish requested the loan and use it wisely. We worked closely with our small local bank to apply. Our diocesan finance office made sure we had all the information we needed to proceed with the loan, but it was up to us to handle the details. The bank clearly explained the program’s requirements, which included documenting a month’s salary costs. (This was so that no candidate could extract a number from nothing and claim that amount.) The loan was 2.5 months’ salary. I can tell you, at least in our case, that this amount was not sufficient to be considered a financial drain.

Would it be better for our staff to go without pay and add to the current woes? Would it be better if we weren’t there to do God’s work?

When our pastor signed the request, he agreed to meet the loan requirements. This meant that anyone who had been put on leave or fired due to the pandemic had to be reinstated. Any funds not used for salaries could be used for utilities. Using the funds for mortgages or rent was also allowed (but we don’t have any of those costs). The money couldn’t be allocated to anything non-essential.

It is important to consider the greater value of this loan for our parish and the community at large. We can be there for those who call on us in need, which is not a trivial number.

Lonely, sad, scared, or grieving people can find someone to talk to. We wrote notes and letters to encourage those confined to the house, a term that took on greater meaning when almost everyone had to be there. We have launched an initiative where we call to verify all registered parishioners with the help of staff and volunteers. It was something we were worried about bothering some people, but we learned that it is great to hear from us.

If anyone needs more than pastoral assistance, we offer material support in the form of food, gas cards or various other goods. We broadcast Mass four days a week and featured live events on Facebook. During Lent, we offered a weekly soup lunch, with contactless delivery. Our city management asked us to coordinate a meal program with them. With generous donations to this effort, we purchased gift cards from local restaurants. These gift cards are used to help feed the elderly and homebound, and they help local businesses keep going in an uncertain environment.

If this was all just a scam or scam to use funds for something bad, I can’t imagine how it would be done. Before criticizing the inclusion of religious organizations in the PPP, our true catholicity calls us not to assume the worst. There are many reasons to be cynical or angry about the state of our world and our church, but this shouldn’t be one of them.

Would it be better for our staff to go without pay and add to the current woes? Would it be better if we weren’t there to do God’s work? Given the great needs of our time, I am grateful beyond measure for the PPP With the generous members of our community, it has kept us going.

Editor’s Note: America Media has applied for and has been approved for a paycheck protection loan in the amount of $ 314,000.

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Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson