Business Manager Betsy Bridgeford and Father Craig Loecker, pastor of St. Leo the Great Parish in Omaha, review parish financial reports June 3 in the parish office. After a 50% drop in collections due to the suspension of Masses in mid-March, the parish benefited greatly from parishioners’ donations through the archdiocese’s website. MIKE MAY/STAFF

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Parish, school financial outlook is gradually improving

As state-mandated coronavirus restrictions were bringing many public activities to an abrupt halt, the Omaha archdiocese, on March 16, directed parishes to immediately suspend all liturgical celebrations to protect public health.

And with that suspension came a sudden and in some cases precipitous drop in the financial lifeblood of parishes – the weekly offertory collection.

But, thanks to the commitment and generosity of parishioners and alternate methods of giving, along with help from the archdiocese and federal assistance, parish finances are being buoyed.

Phone inquiries to parishes around the archdiocese now reveal a pattern of gradual recovery as parishes and the archdiocese have taken measures to respond to the crisis and public liturgies are resuming.

Father Stanley Schmit, pastor of St. John Nepomucene and Ss. Peter and Paul parishes in Howells, and Holy Trinity Parish in Heun, said contributions in his parishes at first dropped by about 60-70%.

He sent a letter to parishioners to explain the suspension, reminding them that, despite being unable to gather for Mass, parish expenses continue and meeting obligations depended on parishioners mailing in or dropping off their offerings.

Contributions continued to lag for a time, likely due to parishioners’ uncertainty about their own financial means, Father Schmit said.

But, thanks to a reserve fund, the parishes continued to meet their obligations, he said. “That is (due to) the interest that we took off of our investments just before things (the pandemic) happened. It’s usually once or twice a year that we draw off what we’ve gained.”

He said that once Masses resumed in May, collections have steadily improved. “This last weekend (May 23-24), we hit about what we usually get or what we need per our budget.”

“Overall, we’ve done fairly well,” he said. “People have done, I think, what they could.”

WEATHERING THE STORM

Another parish experiencing a steep decline in revenue was Assumption-Guadalupe in Omaha, which serves a largely Hispanic congregation.

“We’re one of the poorer parishes … but we’re keeping our heads above water so far,” said Father Carl Zoucha, pastor. “The Hispanic population often gives cash on Sundays, so that had all stopped,” resulting in a drop in giving of about 60%.

To weather the storm, the parish temporarily closed one of its two churches, Assumption Church, and the former school building now used for meetings and catechesis classes to save on expenses, and held three “drive-by blessings” with an offertory box at the end of the line where people could make donations.

Some parishioners also mailed in their contributions or placed them in a drop box at the parish office, Father Zoucha said. They also are being encouraged to donate through direct deposit.

“Because of our simple operations, we’re not in a crisis mode at this point,” he said, “so we’re thankful for that.”

HELP FROM ARCHDIOCESE

The Archdiocese of Omaha also lent a hand, canceling two months of administrative fund assessments charged monthly to parishes to support archdiocesan programs and activities, said Jim Stolze, chief financial officer for the archdiocese.

“Knowing that parishes would be having a challenging time without collections normally received during Masses, the Archdiocesan Finance Council felt that waiving the March and April assessments would be very beneficial to the parishes,” he said. The assessments resumed in May when parishes were allowed to resume Masses.

To compensate for lost revenue, the archdiocese directed staff to avoid unnecessary expenditures and trimmed its 2020-2021 budget beginning July 1 by 10.7%, including suspension of salary increases for archdiocesan employees.

Stolze said the budget cuts will enable the archdiocese to reduce monthly assessments to parishes by 10% for the new budget year.

The archdiocese also created a mechanism for online giving to parishes through its website, archomaha.org. As of late May, 86 parishes had benefited to the tune of $81,616 from 805 one-time or recurring gifts.

At St. Leo the Great Parish in Omaha, donations were down an average of about 50% after Masses were suspended, but the parish found significant help through these online donations, said Father Craig Loecker, pastor.

As of late-May, the parish had received more than $15,000, the largest share of all donations made through the archdiocesan website. Donations through an app called One Parish and electronic fund transfers also helped, he said.

OTHER FORMS OF HELP

Father Damian Zuerlein is pastor of St. Frances Cabrini Parish and president of All Saints School, both in Omaha, and a member of the Archdiocesan Finance Council. He estimated that contributions across the archdiocese have been down an average of about 25%, but that parishes that had already established electronic funds transfers with parishioners through their banks fared better.

Many parishes also offer parishioners an option for online giving on their parish websites.

“Some of the larger parishes are down much less – about 10-15%, probably because parishes with big schools … have gone to electronic fund transfers,” he said.

Father Zuerlein also credits the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which provides funds for small businesses and other organizations, for helping many parishes and schools meet payroll obligations and avoid layoffs.

For example, Guardian Angels Central Catholic School in West Point was able to continue paying faculty and staff despite a temporary loss of financial support from participating parishes, said Father Steven Emanuel, school president.

Those parishes, St. Mary in West Point, St. Anthony in St. Charles Township, St. Boniface in Monterey Township and St. Aloysius in Aloys, of which Father Emanuel is pastor, and Holy Cross in Beemer, all are part of the corporation that operates the school.

“The assessment for each parish that supports the school was forgiven during this pandemic to try and help the financial resources of each parish,” Father Emanuel said. “And so, part of what’s helped make that up is our participation in the Paycheck Protection Plan.”

Although Father Emanuel’s four parishes had seen a drop in collections of 40-50%, they are getting through the crisis by being frugal and relying on parishioners who mail in their contributions or drop them off at the parish office, and others who use electronic fund transfers, he said.

And Father Emanuel is confident that since Masses resumed May 4, the financial picture will continue to improve.

“I think that’s just an outgrowth of the people’s commitment,” he said. “They take great pride and great ownership in the stewardship of this place.”

POSITIVE PERSPECTIVE

“Our collections are not down as much as I know some other rural and even urban parishes are,” said Father Bernard Starman, pastor of five parishes – St. Patrick in O’Neill, St. Joseph in Amelia, Sacred Heart in Boyd County, St. Boniface in Stuart and St. Joseph in Atkinson.

Donations in those parishes dropped an average of about 25%, he said, propped up by regular reminders during livestreamed Masses for parishioners to donate electronically or by mail.

And things should improve now that Sunday Masses resumed the last weekend in May, he said.

But financial improvement is not the only positive Father Starman expects as people return to their churches.

“Our people have realized what going to Mass meant for them, and now that they’re hungry to return … I think we’re going to see a different kind of spirit moving in a lot of parishes and communities,” he said.