By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator

Financial challenges are likely lurking for parishes in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that shuttered churches for nearly two months.

But not all of the news is grim. Pastors  at two of the larger churches in the Diocese of Baton Rouge said they are somewhat encouraged by donations during the recent times of stay-at-home orders that were lifted by Gov. John Bel Edwards effective May 15.

“Our parishioners have been extremely generous during this challenging time,” said Father Michael Alello, pastor at St. Thomas More Church in Baton Rouge. “Every parish depends on their collection to provide for their operating expenses, and we are very fortunate our community is continuing to give, whether it is online, through the mail or dropping envelopes at the front door.”

Father Paul Yi, pastor of St. George Church in Baton Rouge, said he is grateful for the generosity of parishioners during the crisis. He noted that St. George has many identified givers and that those continuing to donate are giving thanks for what they have received through the years from the parish.

“I think it’s been built up over the years by the generosity of people and good spiritual leadership,” he said.

St. George administrator and director of facilities Martin Hernandez said many parishioners continue to donate through  automatic debits and online giving, to the point where nearly 50 percent of the parish’s income is almost fixed.

He said online giving was up 25 percent for the month of March.

He added that more than 60 percent of the registered parishioners are identified givers to the church, well above the national average of 25 to 30 percent.

“Stewardship from the last several pastors has been strongly preached and apparently ingrained into the faith life of our parish. People continue to see the need and necessity to be stewards in good times and bad,” he said.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the picture is not all roses, attributable to several factors,  including people losing their jobs, or furloughed or perhaps having to take a reduction in pay.

Hernandez said collections showed a 25 percent dip in March, when Edwards issued the initial stay-at-home order.

“We realize we may be suffering as a parish but we also realize that parishioners are struggling as well if they are not being paid,” Hernandez said.

Father Alello said one area of drop off is from parishioners who don’t give by any regular means but simply drop the money in the collection basket. He said “in that sense we are down but overall our folks are doing a great job in continuing to do the work of the parish.”

Creativity has been tested as all pastors search for innovative ways not to lose touch with their parishioners.

Father Alello said his staff has focused on two goals during the shutdown, and both might actually prove unforeseen benefits moving forward.

Communication was the first priority, he said,  whether it’s communicating with parishioners through phone calls or emails. He said communication is vital because it creates a sense that (the church is) still here for you and still answering whatever needs may surface in your life.”

Communication outreach also uncovered a database that was “terribly out of date,” according to Father Alello.  Updating that information is critical because the parish has been able to to identify parishioners without email, who don’t have internet or social media accessibility.

Father Alello has learned that many of those are older parishioners, so they were intentionally  put on a call list “to make sure they don’t feel alone.”

Social media has also taken on a much larger role for many clergy members, whether it’s livestreaming Masses or offering spiritual videos.

A recent Sunday Mass celebrated by Father Alello garnered a stunning 20,000 views, some from as far away as Nova Scotia and North Carolina.

“It has turned into donations, without a doubt,” said Father Alello, who is well known for his social media acumen. “People are giving and supporting their parish and supporting the people that are feeding them.

“But the real hope is when we come out of this people will have a greater appreciation of what their church did for them during one of the most challenging times in most people’s lifetimes. This is a life-changing event, and I hope our people can say St. Thomas More was right here in the dirt with us.”

He also hopes the foundation established will attract Catholics who have fallen away from the church for whatever reason to return.

St. George has also had a broad presence on the internet, livestreaming daily Mass as well as Sunday Mass. Parochial vicar Father Paul Gros has developed a popular virtual series called “Glory Moments”  where he receives emails from parishioners sharing their quarantine experiences, their gratitude and what they are grateful for, sharing some of their most touching moments during the shutdown.

Father Yi has recorded a series of spiritual videos and staff members have also been calling parishioners, especially some of the elderly population to not only check on their health but to see if they need groceries or any other needs.

Addressing what promises to be a summer and fall of uncertainty, Father Yi said the “Lord will provide for us and take of us.”

“We cannot certainly plan out (several months),” he said. “We discuss and we read about the current trends but we are also aware the Lord will also provide for us and take care of us.

“So there is definitely a gaze that is more heaven bound than earth bound.”

Father Alello said the pandemic has temporarily derailed releasing the  parish’s campus master plan that includes renovating the current church among other major projects, citing the difficulty of seeking donations when many families are uncertain about their own employment status.

“It’s a tremendous question mark for everybody,” he said.

Both he and Father Yi agree one of the unknowns is what affect will the expected financial downturn have on Catholic schools, including any potential loss of tuition.

“For families with children in school, especially Catholic schools, which is not inexpensive, I worry about them,” Father Yi said.

“There are a lot of long-term questions  which nobody has answers to,” Father Alello said.