Stanley, a guest at St. André Bessette Parish in Portland’s Old Town, receives a sack lunch donated by students and families from Central Catholic. Federal loans helped keep the ministry going. (Courtesy St. André Bessette Parish)
Stanley, a guest at St. André Bessette Parish in Portland’s Old Town, receives a sack lunch donated by students and families from Central Catholic. Federal loans helped keep the ministry going. (Courtesy St. André Bessette Parish)
In the Archdiocese of Portland, many parishes and ministries received funds from the Payroll Protection Program, federal coronavirus relief meant to help businesses and nonprofits retain jobs. Leaders of the Catholic entities say the loans prevented major unemployment, sustained vital ministries for people on the margins and made long-term organization survival more likely.

Help for Old Town

At St. André Bessette Parish in Portland’s Old Town, an $80,000 PPP loan made it possible for staff to continue serving homeless people from May to mid-July. The federal law allowed a quarter of the loan to help pay for utilities; St. Andre Bessette’s power bill is about $2,000 per month. With only 25% of normal offertory coming in because of COVID-19 regulations, the loan kept the doors open.

In a joint project with Central Catholic High School, staff hand out sandwiches to lines of about 50 hungry people each morning and in the afternoons distribute food boxes, clothing and hygiene products.

As with all the loans, the St. André Bessette funds can become a grant if the parish shows the money was used to save jobs. Applications for loan forgiveness are about to begin at banks across the country.

But now that the loan is spent, the finance council at St. André Bessette is considering reducing workers’ hours. The public has been generous with donations, but can’t keep pace with need, which only has increased during the pandemic.

“It’s a little intimidating, seeing the need and having a helpless feeling,” said Monica Hofstetter, finance and facilities director for the small parish.

Donations and prayers

Catholic Youth Organization/Camp Howard in Portland received a $249,000 PPP loan, but also had to hand back to families $350,000 in fees for canceled sports and summer camps.

The PPP funds paid CYO staff through May and June and provided brief summer jobs for youths who had planned to earn money for college by being camp counselors. The loan also covered rent and utilities.

By the start of July, the money was used up and most CYO/Camp Howard staff went on furlough.

Sister Krista von Borstel, executive director of CYO/Camp Howard, even furloughed herself. But a donor came forward to pay for her work. Her tasks this summer include adapting fall sports. Possibilities include cross country running and outdoor volleyball.

St. Ignatius Parish in Southeast Portland received $97,000 for the church and $315,000 for the parish school. Lenders calculated 10 weeks of expenses for recipient organizations.

“The funds have been used primarily to support payroll expenses and some utility expenses,” said Matt Wangler, business manager at St. Ignatius. “With our offertory down a bit since we had to suspend weekly Masses and events, the PPP funding has helped us avoid staffing reductions during the pandemic.”

Parish ministers, teachers and janitors could continue serving people and preparing for the new school year.

“Basic logic: Oregon employees are Oregon employees,” said Father David Jaspers, pastor of Ascension Parish in Southeast Portland, referring to critics who said Catholic entities perhaps should not have received the money. His parish obtained PPP funds. “Because of the loan, we did not need to make cuts to hours or furlough,” Father Jaspers said.

St. Alice in Springfield got a $44,500 loan, using 95% for payroll and 5% for utilities. Father Mark Bentz, the pastor, was adamant that no one on the staff of seven be laid off. The parish met that goal and has not needed to cut workers’ hours so far.

St. Alice was able to continue popular marriage preparation courses over Zoom, and the youth minister could meet online with isolated young people.

Life without the PPP loan “would have been a very unhappy thing,” said Peg Ries, business manager at St. Alice.

As for the future, parishioners have amazed Ries by donating enough that the parish is getting 90% of expected revenue.

Can keep feeding

One of the busiest Catholic ministries during the pandemic is Blanchet House of Hospitality, a feeding, addiction recovery and housing site with an Old Town location and a farm in Carlton. A PPP loan of about $125,000 plus city and county emergency funds and the usual private donations, enabled Blanchet to adapt and keep serving 10,000 meals per week with the much higher cost of disposable containers. Also, the pandemic halted the usual food donation supply lines from restaurants and the Oregon Convention Center.

Before the pandemic, Blanchet’s per-meal expenses were a highly efficient 33 cents. Now it’s about $5 per meal.

“This pandemic is not going away soon,” said Scott Kerman, executive director of Blanchet House. “We’ll need to maintain this level of service.”

PPP funds also paid for extra staff to bring breakfast to city-sanctioned homeless camps and to handle complicated situations during a pandemic. Amid the recent heat wave, for example, Blanchet staff handed out cold water on the streets.

“The loan made a real difference to us,” Kerman said. “We maintained staffing levels and could hire temporary staff to assist with extra things that have popped up.”

The PPP funds are gone, but Blanchet may be able to access federal money from the city to keep feeding Portland’s homeless.

Private donations increased at the start of the pandemic but have since dropped off. At the same time, federal unemployment benefits are likely to shrink. That will cause more demand at Blanchet, Kerman predicted.

“There are so many people in this community who live on the edge of homelessness because they use so much of their income to sustain their housing,” he explained.

Resurrection Parish in Tualatin received a $115,000 PPP loan. Father Bill Moisant, the pastor, said that the funds covered salaries and benefits for parish and preschool workers through June. At the start of the pandemic, Father Moisant had promised staff they would not be laid off.

“As pastor, I thought that as a parish we owed them some financial security during this time of great uncertainty,” he wrote in a letter to parishioners.

The priest also told parents of preschool students that no child should leave the program because a breadwinner became suddenly unemployed.

Staff used technology to help parishioners and interact with preschoolers.

Ministries can continue

A PPP loan kept Catholic Charities of Oregon serving people in need across the region with a full staff.

“We would have had to lay off workers or shut down programs or limit some services,” said Vanessa Briseño, director of the Pope Francis Center at Catholic Charities. Instead, Catholic Charities stepped it up, joining with the archdiocese’s pastoral center, Blanchet House and St. Francis Dining Hall to feed the sudden surge of unemployed and hungry Oregonians. In addition to spiking hunger, housing is at even more of a premium. “The PPP loan helped us think through how to add services and do them in a safe way,” said Briseño.

Catholic Charities, accustomed to personal contact, has learned to use technology to stay in touch with people, including the 1,200 residents of Catholic Charities’ affordable housing. Staff have carried out wellness checks and delivered food and medication when needed.

Mount Angel Abbey received a loan and is keeping staff on board as events and visitors have come to a stop.

Not all parishes applied. Father Dave Zegar of St. Andrew Parish in Northeast Portland thought his community was doing well enough and wanted to leave more funds for small businesses. Father Zegar and his parishioners also did not want to mix church and state in this case.

Some parishes are still hurting and are asking for relief from archdiocesan assessments — contributions from parishes that support archdiocesewide ministry.

“Not looking good for next year,” said one western Oregon pastor who obtained a PPP loan but worries about the future of his parish budget.

A recent survey of U.S. bishops by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate showed that nearly 50% of Catholic dioceses have eliminated or considered eliminating diocesan programs. The Archdiocese of New York announced the closing of 20 schools, and other dioceses may soon follow suit. CARA reported 17% of dioceses have been forced to furlough or lay off workers, and more shoes are likely to drop if the COVID-19 crisis lasts into the fall.

edl@catholicsentinel.org