For all that they do, parish secretaries are the unsung heroes of a church's life. Photo courtesy of Tess Bondoc

Unsung heroes: Secretaries on the parish front lines

  • April 29, 2018

It was an otherwise quiet Wednesday morning when a woman walked into the parish office of St. Joan of Arc in Toronto. 

She was in tears. 

She was looking to meet with a priest but the parish secretary, Rosanne Kelly, was the only one working in the office that day. The pastor was away on retreat and the associate pastor was visiting a local nursing home.

“She told me she was having difficulties with her son who wasn’t well and I could relate to it because I have a son in Vancouver,” said Kelly. “As a mother, I talked to her with similar problems but that’s not really church-related. It’s just she came to the door and needed somebody to listen so I listened.”

Kelly said moments like these happen at least once a week at St. Joan of Arc Church in Toronto. Her job description may say parish secretary, but Kelly is sometimes called to be a counsellor, a bookkeeper, an event planner or a referee. Basically anything the parish needs her to be. 

The unsung hero of parish life, the parish secretary — or administrative assistant as some prefer — is both the face and the drive behind the church community. Every day, they answer calls, balance books, put out fires and make sure the flock is looked after. Kelly’s pastor and boss, Fr. Dan Callahan, jokes that the parish secretary is not a pastor’s sidekick, but more like a partner in crime. 

Kelly has been a member of her parish for 45 years and she has worked as the parish secretary for 32 of those years. Her job has grown from just greeting people and answering phone calls to handling priests’ schedules and taking care of the sacristy. She has worked with five different pastors and witnessed the parish shift administration from the Priests of the Sacred Heart to the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement. 

“The job just kept growing and once Fr. Dan came, I got more responsibilities,” said Kelly. 

In May, St. Joan of Arc is celebrating its 100th year anniversary and the parish is as busy as ever.

“It allows me to be relaxed knowing that (Kelly) knows the daily adminis-trivia that I don’t have to concentrate on because I can depend on the fact that she knows what she’s doing and she stays on top of these things,” said Callahan. “And I can come and go, knowing that she’ll take care of this.” 

For Kelly, it is a 24/7 job. She often finds herself working well outside her office hours, but she doesn’t mind. The church is like a second home to her. 

“I live only about 15 minutes away from the church so it’s easy for me to come anytime,” she said. “If Father (Callahan) is away for the weekend, I’d come down early in the morning to open up the church for the 8:30 Mass and I might come down late at night to close the church.”

Having Kelly is invaluable, said Callahan, because it allows him to bring his full attention to the pastoral care and ministry around the community. He can spend his day meeting with parish groups, going to meetings or visiting hospitals and nursing homes.

Sometimes, he also relies on Kelly when settling disputes at the church. 

“The other thing is the good cop, bad cop,” said Callahan. “If she says no, it’s a lot less painful for people than if I say no because I’m expected to say yes all the time as the pastor. So I get to always be the nice guy.”

“As secretaries, we know when to hide the pastors,” Kelly joked. “And we don’t let people know that.” 

FrDan RoseanneKelly secretaryFr. Dan Callahan and parish secretary Rosanne Kellu form a valuable team for St. Joan of Arc Parish in Toronto. (Photo courtesy of Fr. Dan Callahan)

Tess Marga Bondoc secretaryTess and Marga Bondoc are a mother-daughter team at Holy Family in Whitby, Ont. (Photo courtesy of Tess Bondoc)

TESS AND MARGA Bondoc are a mother-daughter team at Holy Family Parish in Whitby, Ont. Tess, 50, was hired in 2010. It was her first job after immigrating to Canada from the Philippines. 

But even if it wasn’t her job, Tess said she would still be doing the same thing. 

“Even back in the Philippines, I was involved in the church. I was involved in baptismal preparation class, marriage prep classes... I’ve done all of that back home so coming here, it wasn’t difficult for me to transition in this church,” Tess said. 

Moving to a new country is a difficult transition, but Tess said she and her family of five found comfort in belonging to the parish community.

“For me, it’s being a part of a family. It’s to belong. It’s being a part of something that’s bigger than myself and I can only see this in a church.”

Tess is now passing on her love for parish life to her oldest child, 22-year-old daughter Marga. When Tess is away from the office running workshops and attending seminars, Marga is hired part-time as the receptionist. 

“It’s important to us that people feel valued and important so there is always someone at the front when the church is open,” said Tess.

On a daily basis, Tess has to deal with unusual requests from the priests, parishioners and sometimes, passers by. One of the more unusual but common requests is when people come into the office with their old statues, crosses and other sacramentals. 

“They would leave it with me, like bags or boxes of them, because they say the items are blessed and they don’t want to throw them away,” said Tess. “They leave it with me whether I want to take it or not.”

Holy Family parish has accumulated quite a collection, said Tess. As often as they can, she and pastor Fr. Laszlo Nagy gift the items to people who need them. 

When Tess is not greeting people, answering phone calls or checking emails, she is bookkeeping, scheduling appointments, processing sacramental documents, doing the payroll, updating the parish website and the parish smartphone app. 

Late last year, Tess’s title officially changed from parish secretary to office manager.

“It’s just a change of title, I don’t really call myself that,” she said. “Everyone calls me the parish secretary and I don’t mind.”

Outside of her full-time duties, Tess volunteers as a lector, a catechist for Communion classes and a member of the parish council. 

STEPHANIE NARGOZ, director of Human Resources at the Archdiocese of Toronto, said the role of the parish secretary has changed dramatically even in the span of five years, let alone two or three decades. Many have seen their roles evolve. 

“Technology is a big one,” said Nargoz. “There has been a shift from typewriters and now we have computer technology. There’s a lot of change in the positioning of the role. The titling has changed. The parish secretary title is still there but we’re seeing a move to administrative assistant or office administrator.”

Even in the past three years as director, Nargoz said the Human Resources office has put more emphasis on professional performance reviews. She uncovered a performance review template from 1985 which listed categories like “neatness” or “dress.” 

“I know there was one person who I chatted with that said they couldn’t wear pants to work when they first started,” said Nargoz. “A lot of it focused on appearance of the incumbent versus the role itself. So now, you would see more of a move to what is the work they are accomplishing.”

The role of parish secretary is traditionally a female role and for the most part, it still is. Within the Archdiocese of Toronto, Nargoz said she only knows of two male secretaries in its 221 parishes. 

Peter Leitmann secretary

Peter Leitmann wih St. Boniface pastor Fr. Mark Robson. (Courtesy of Peter Leitmann)

One of them, Peter Leitmann, is the only male parish secretary who works full-time in the archdiocese. He has been working at St. Boniface Parish in Scarborough for almost two years, but sometimes, people are still taken aback when they see a man in the office.

“Sometimes people get kind of shocked when they come in and they see a man. They’d say, ‘We’re looking for the secretary’ and I’d say, ‘You got him,’ ” Leitmann laughed. 

“That happens quite often, especially on the phone. Someone calls in and I get called ‘Father’ right away and well, I’m a father of three young children, but I’m not a Father of the people.”

Leitmann’s official title is parish animator. This means that on top of his regular office work as secretary, he manages the various programs and events that take place in the parish. Leitmann has a background in youth ministry, so one of his main initiatives has been to grow the EDGE and LifeTeen programs for elementary and high school students.

Laura Cumming, who is the human resources director for the Archdiocese of Winnipeg, said she is seeing the same pattern in her diocese’s 67 parishes and 21 mission churches. 

“I can probably count (the number of male secretaries) on one hand,” said Cumming. 

Both Nargoz and Cumming said they are seeing more men apply for the role in the past few years, but, regardless of the gender, they see the job as demanding.

“I think a lot of times, the parish secretaries feel that people don’t think they do as much as they do and these ladies, and the men, work very hard. Our priests kind of keep them on their toes,” said Cumming. 

The typical salary of parish secretary can range from about $30,000 to $60,000 a year. The range accounts for their hours of work, their amount of responsibilities, their years of experience and even, the size of the parish. 

The turnover rate for these roles are often very low across the Canadian dioceses. Many see their work as more than just a job but a service. They enjoy going above and beyond the call of duty and they often do, which is why many choose this as a lifetime career. 

Ida Foch secretary

Ida Foch was given a fond farewell by parishioners after serving St. Mary Immaculate Church for 37 years. (Photo courtesy of Boots Montano)

EIGHTY-THREE-YEAR-OLD Ida Foch is currently enjoying retirement after 37 years as secretary at St. Mary Immaculate Church in Richmond Hill, Ont. When she was first hired to work part-time during the Advent season in 1980, she worked with a typewriter and a wall of file cabinets. 

Foch used to enter all of the registered parishioners and organize their donations using a file folder system. The office didn’t transition into a computer database until about 1983 to 1985. She had a volunteer parishioner come by once in a while to help her meticulously enter the information into a database. 

“I think the hardest part (of the job) for me was when I had to learn bookkeeping,” said Foch. 

In all her years working at St. Mary Immaculate, Foch said there was never a dull moment. Both the doorbell and the phone rang constantly and about 20 or more people came in and out of the office all day. 

“One time we had a young man, he was on drugs, and he came into the office and he was just very confused and he wanted to have some help,” she said. “We had many, many people come in for help, for food or money, and so this was an instance which it was very hard for me to handle.”

Foch said she and the pastor were able to sit the young man down on a couch in one of the priests’ office. They never called the police. They just let him rest. When he became a little more sober, they gave him a phone number for the St. Vincent de Paul Society and sent him on his way. 

“I always just try to be honest, kind, friendly and compassionate to everyone who comes in,” said Foch. “Many times, I am the first face they see when they walk into the church, so I tried to represent that the best way I could.”

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