By Ed Langlois and Katie Scott

He dreaded it, but Father Lucio Villalobos has laid off some staff at St. Matthew Parish in Hillsboro. Father Villalobos, a member of the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit, wants the layoffs to be temporary and intends to bring workers back to the church and school once the pandemic subsides.

With public Masses canceled because of the coronavirus, offertories are down at parishes across western Oregon, especially those without online giving or a vibrant automatic withdrawal program.

“Our finances are hurting at this time, and our regular offertory has noticeably gone down,” Father Villalobos said in an April 17 note to parishioners. “May the Lord provide for what you need at this moment and for what our parish needs.”

St. Matthew is not alone. Though the numbers are still coming in, at least a handful of other parishes have taken the same cost-cutting measures.

Jo Willhite, chief administrative officer of the archdiocese, confirms that some parishes have laid off workers because of finances. Other parishes are holding their own, “which is very encouraging,” Willhite said. 

Asked if she foresees layoffs at the pastoral center or further job loss at parishes, she says both are possible, even if temporary.

“I don’t have anything definitive yet,” Willhite said. “At the pastoral center we have not made that decision, and I hope we will not have to.”

Some parishes are waiting and hoping. One pastor whose parish’s demographics “are not wealthy” called Willhite in late March and said he could make March, April and May payroll, but he was uncertain about June.

At St. Anne Parish in Grants Pass, Father Bill Holtzinger has seen offertory collections drop by about 50% since the pandemic lockdowns began. The Easter offertory was off by 60%.

“We have savings for three months,” said Father Holtzinger, who applied for a federal payroll protection grant before funds ran out in mid-April. His big worry at present is losing families from the parish school.

Some church agencies have let staff go. Catholic Youth Organization/Camp Howard has furloughed workers and cut time for the small crew that remains.

Sue Paiement of Catholic Community Services in Lane County has so far averted layoffs. And as client need has spiked, more volunteers have arrived to help, Paiement said.  

Catholic Charities of Oregon, one of the largest helping agencies in the archdiocese, has not had to lay off workers, said Deacon Rick Birkel, executive director.

Parishes offering livestreamed Masses likely have kept a musician or two, but many others have been let go.

Jethro Higgins gets 20% of the income to support his family from work as a musician and catechist at Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego. Without public Masses, he is on furlough.

“For my family, life is still going and although we will feel the pain of not having the extra boost in income from Our Lady of the Lake we’re going to probably be ok in the short term,” said Higgins, who also works at Oregon Catholic Press, publisher of this newspaper. “The future is a little uncertain, but we’ll cross that bridge if I’m still typing to you from my home office in June.”

Even more than income, Higgins misses ministry and the Eucharist. His son’s first Communion was slated for this spring and the boy is disappointed. That’s perhaps the hardest thing of all for Higgins.

A team of U.S. Catholic composers recorded songs at their homes and then strung them together into online concerts over the course of two nights. Viewers were asked to donate to a fund to help the out-of-work music ministers. The concerts, which raised more than $10,000 — are still available at openyourhymnal.com/asmusicheals.

“Like many of you, I have lost most of my income during this time,” Oregon Catholic Press composer Sarah Hart said as she sang her song “Be Still and Know that I am God.” Hart — who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and who once played a concert in St. Peter’s Square — told her peers: “I pray that you trust. I am trying to do that, too.”

Meanwhile, parishes and archdiocesan leaders are trying to stay ahead of what comes next.

“We are trying to figure out: What does it look like when we come out of this?” said Willhite. “In a way it’s a very stark time to look at what we do at the pastoral center — who we serve and what people are saying they need and want. It’s a good time to evaluate how well we are doing and what we are doing. Are there things we should be doing in addition or instead of? That’s on the ministry side.”

On the administrative side going forward, the archdiocese is looking at creative ways parishes can improve their financial management, even with  limited resources.

For example, last year the archdiocese hired a certified public accountant to work as a floating business manager at the parishes. “So if a parish really needs a business manager’s talent but can’t afford it, they share this person,” she said. “The parishes pay way less, and yet they get the talent,” she said. “It’s worked out really well. She pays for herself. Maybe we’ll do more of that. I think the model has shown that it works.”

Willhite said that also going forward, the archdiocese hopes to stay in closer touch with parishes, “who work with very tight budgets,” to help ensure their budgeting system is as efficient as possible.

edl@catholicsentinel.org

katies@catholicsentinel.org