With restrictions ongoing, many parishes are in deep financial trouble, writes Chai Brady
While the tired old canard of priests always talking about the need to raise parish funds persists, many clerics are in fact reluctant ever to raise conversations about money.
The fact remains, however, that parishes cannot run on goodwill alone and the precarious situation faced in many dioceses has been greatly heightened by the suspension of public Masses and ongoing restrictions on the size of congregations. Collections are still down with many priests telling The Irish Catholic they are “deeply concerned” about future ramifications.
Priests from across the island report that lockdown has in some cases halved parish income, which has led to worries about paying bills and staff in the coming months especially as state support for employment begins to dry up.
But, it’s not an even picture and some parishes report Massgoers upping their contribution to make up for the lost weeks. Geographic location and parish demographics have also been a major factor in a parishes ability to get back on financial track.
Fr John Walsh PP of Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Limerick said their income is down by 50% with attendance still “low”.
“The people that have been faithful to the weekly envelope have been faithful to it. It’s still down at least 50%, I’d say. It’s still quite significant. In the community I live in the people that are practising are mostly retired and are at the age were a lot of them are still minding themselves but they’re the ones that are probably faithful to the envelope collection anyway,” he said.
“We have a good community but of course it’s a huge concern and it’s affecting everybody and it’s affecting every home as well so that has its knock-on effect with us and a lot of them just don’t have it to give. I am concerned about where it’s going to be going in the future for the winter.”
Fr Tim Bartlett, Administrator in St Mary’s in Belfast said his parish collections are about 65-70% of what they were pre-lockdown, which he says is similar across other parish communities he has asked.
He said: “If that was to remain the pattern for a prolonged period of time it would raise all sorts of issues around sustainability, and as well as that the extra costs that maintaining a church during the pandemic have inevitably brought in terms of cleaning materials, masks, things like that.
Fr Bartlett said that he noticed when public Masses returned “people, very generously and kindly, gave extra when they first came back”.
While money from church collections is down, he says there is a strong tradition of people from “all over” Belfast and farther afield lighting candles, as it’s a city centre church near shopping areas. “That has remained as strong as it was before lockdown and may reflect the level of need for prayer that people feel at this time.”
At this stage I’m wondering how I’m going to pay the normal bills next year, it would be more than a concern, it would be a big concern”
In Offaly, Fr Joe Deegan PP of Clara said they suffered the “unfortunate happenstance” of having to go back into a second lockdown after the national lockdown, which has been a big hit.
“Anybody that was coming to church, there was certainly a reduction in the amount of coins in the collection and quite a few more large notes, because people felt they hadn’t been to Mass and hadn’t got a chance to contribute, so they were doing their best to catch up and that was great,” Fr Deegan explained.
However, he admitted that: “There’s a huge deficit in what we’d be taking in now compared to what we would have been taking in before.”
Due to the generosity of parishioners who returned to public Mass after several months, it has not been more than a 20% reduction compared to normal times.
“Because the numbers were much smaller with the social distancing and the restrictions it was amazing we were given so much from so many people,” Fr Deegan said.
“At this stage I’m wondering how I’m going to pay the normal bills next year, it would be more than a concern, it would be a big concern.”
The parish priest of Priorswood in Dublin, Fr Bryan Shortall OFM Cap., said that “money is down” but it will be a few weeks before he knows the full impact.
“We would have concerns, we’re not a very big operation but we have two staff and they’re paid from parish funds…we want to try and keep paying them, we want to be able to pay them. These staff are essential staff, one is the sacristan/church cleaner, the other is the secretary, we’re right down to petrol fumes, we really need these two staff.”
Fr Aquinas Duffy PP in Cabinteely in Dublin said that collections were down by 40% in his parish overall compared to pre-Covid-19.
However, he said: “We’re finding that people are responding through online donations and also we have a ‘tap and go’ machine in the church so that’s very popular as well for people. People are getting used to just flashing their card in front of it and it gives a €4 donation or whatever, so that builds up.
“At the moment from the parish point of view our head is above water so that’s good, but what’s taken a huge hit is the normal Sunday collections.
“I think you can’t under-estimate the generosity of people too, I think particularly when we started to re-open and people realised that all the charities, particularly like St Vincent de Paul and the hits they’re taking as well, people have been very generous in coming forward and giving a bit extra,” he added.
Fr Charlie McDonnell PP in Westport, Co. Mayo said they are currently at about 80% of what they would normally receive – it was down to 60% at its worst – but that would be down to the fact they’re based in a town that is frequented by tourists.
“It seems to be, among our lads [priests] here [Tuam Archdiocese], there would have been a very clear rural-urban divide from the start, where guys could keep the churches open, where people could walk in off the streets, it wasn’t too bad, where people were out in the country it was a very different story,” he said.
In Moyvane, Co. Kerry, Fr Kevin McNamara PP said that “from the word go” his parishioners have helped keep the parish afloat and he estimates that the parish is at 85-90% of what they would normally receive. They were involved in initiatives such as having Mass on the church’s porch in front of a car park while people attended sitting in their cars. There were collection baskets at the entrance.
It seems unlikely that in the absence of a vaccine we’ll be seeing packed churches anytime soon and while it is evident there has been a variety of experiences, there will undoubtedly be financial challenges for the majority of parishes.