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Parish finances looking for rebound

By 
  • August 27, 2020

If you ever doubted the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, check out your parish’s COVID-era finances. After months of closed doors and no revenue, followed by months of full-cost operations for Sunday congregations that are a fraction of normal attendance, somehow your parish is still up and running.

“I think parishes are getting by right now. Nobody’s minting money,” Archdiocese of Toronto chancellor of temporal affairs Jim Milway told The Catholic Register.

Checking in with a number of larger dioceses, The Register has found that parish revenues since the March COVID-19 lockdowns began have typically dropped 20 to 50 per cent. In April, Milway’s department was getting some scary phone calls from parishes that hadn’t passed a collection basket in weeks.

“Their collections were just — they just kind of vaporized,” said Milway. “And this was before the wage subsidy came into effect.”

The chancery (head office) dipped into its reserves to provide bridging loans to the worst hit parishes in those weeks. But there haven’t been calls for emergency financing, he said.

Not all parishes have been hit hard. Since the early days of the pandemic when churches were closed across the archdiocese — and the nation — the number of Toronto parishes where collections have increased year-over-year has been steadily rising.

In April, five parishes outperformed 2019. By July, one in six were actually collecting more money than they did in July of 2019, with 42 of 225 parishes pulling off an increase.

At St. Brigid’s Parish just east of downtown Toronto, Fr. Carlos Sierra has been grateful for the generosity of the parishioners, who have kept weekly contributions at the level they were pre-COVID.

About 25 per cent of regular St. Brigid’s parishioners have signed up for pre-authorized giving. But the remaining 75 per cent have also kept up regular contributions.

“People have been very responsible and very generous with their commitment to the parish,” said Sierra. “If you look at the last two or three months you can see that we never fell short, even though we are serving 160 people present in the church on Sundays, not the 600 and more we were doing. (before COVID-19).”

Credit card giving deserves some of the credit for keeping parishes afloat, said Milway. From March through July, Toronto Catholics have given $2.1 million more in credit card donations to their parishes than they did last year.

None of this adds up to a rosy financial picture. Despite the 42 exceptions, Toronto’s overall parish revenues were down 31 per cent in July, from $11.6 million in July of 2019 to $8 million this year.

The biggest factor in parish survival across Canada so far has been the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, or CEWS, covering 75 per cent of parish staff costs.

“It’s been enormously helpful,” said Diocese of London communications chief Matthew Clarke. “There would have been deeper and longer layoffs without that for sure. There might have been the possibility of a few parishes having to close, even temporarily.”

London’s 104 parishes are all still up and running, despite 20- to 50-per-cent declines in revenue. But the uncertainty hasn’t disappeared, Clarke said.

CEWS has been extended through to Dec. 19, but the government is trying to wean employers off the subsidy. If revenues in September are down 20 per cent from a year previous, then parishes can claim wage subsidies of 24 per cent, not the 75 per cent they’ve had in recent months.

In Edmonton, archdiocesan officials can’t conceal their concern with the lack of revenue.

“I’m worried. I think we’re all worried in terms of what the real effect of this is going to be in the end,” Deacon Wayne Provencal, financial administrator of the archdiocese, told Grandin Media.

For May to July, donations are 60 to 65 per cent of what they were last year, though the number of parishes that were in deep trouble is down to five, from 22, from the pandemic’s early days. Archbishop Richard Smith is expected to provide details Sept. 9 on a structure for the archdiocese.

Many dioceses The Register reached out to have reduced or suspended the monthly assessments they collect from parishes — revenue that chancery offices use to support everything from marriage tribunals to human resources.

The dividing line between parishes surviving comfortably and those having to shed staff and programs has been electronic and pre-authorized giving, said Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth assistant financial administrator Melissa Lunn.

“Parishes that did not have electronic giving at the start of COVID were hit the hardest,” Lunn said. “More people are using e-transfers than ever before and through online donation programs like Canada Helps (canadahelps.org).”

As parishioners returned to church, that electronic revenue stream slowed. People reverted to cash in the basket.

In Toronto, officials aren’t sure they want to go back to cash in the basket, and the archdiocese is looking to provide parishes with mobile point of sale devices. In the near-term, a big effort is going into promoting pre-authorized giving.

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