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Catholic Churches Try to Survive the Shutdown

MEGAN CATTEL, HOST: Last week saw three of the most important days in the Christian faith: Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter. Not only are these part of what’s considered the holy season, but Catholic churches also depend on this time to bring in a good portion of their yearly funding. As Brett Forrest reports, the pandemic presents a whole new set of financial challenges as churches try to survive the shutdown.


BRETT FORREST, BYLINE: Easter. The holiest day on the Catholic calendar. And a big fundraising day for churches to cover their expenses.

((SOUND: Monsignor Cassato at St. Athanasius)  

FORREST: That’s a recording of Monsignor David Cassato. Live streaming his Easter Mass last Sunday to an empty Brooklyn church , St. Athanasius. Normally, the church would hold thousands over Easter weekend. Monsignor Cassato says all those people usually put a lot of money in the basket that gets  passed up and down the pews for donations.

MONSIGNOR DAVID CASSATO: It keeps you very solvent. The Easter week and Palm Sunday week. you know, those are gifts because people are very generous.

FORREST: Over 28 thousand tuned into the Facebook Live mass, but not being there in person didn’t generate the same revenue. Once Governor Cuomo limited large gatherings in March, church donations started going down fast.

CASSATO: Our usual Sunday collection is about 9 to $10,000

FORREST: And then came the shutdown. Dropping their weekly collection even more. The Holy Season did bring an uptick With a big online giving campaign, but donations were still 40% lower.

And while  the church closing down lowered electricity and heating bills, these are still large buildings to care for. So cuts had to be made. They’ve had to let go of employees like the church rectory cook and custodians. And Cassato has other staff members to pay, with big insurance bills.

CASSATO: The medical bills still come in, those are the ones that are going to be a real challenge to face // for your employees, you don't want to deprive them of that.

FORREST: St Athanasius serves a large community. It’s able to stay afloat for now, but Cassato has worries.

CASSATO: I got to be honest with you, the quicker we open, the better, but I don't know when that's gonna be.

FORREST: John Quaglione is the deputy press secretary for the Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes all Catholic churches in Brooklyn and Queens. That’s over 1 and a half million Catholics. He says his church, St Anselm in Brooklyn, takes about $13,000 a week to operate. 

JOHN QUAGLIONE: Our primary source of income for our parishes is the the weekly collections that take place either Saturday evening at Mass or Sunday at Mass.

FORREST: Quaglione says the diocese finances are a numbers game at this point. Fewer  people means less money. Funding was already on the decline before the pandemic hit. Church attendance is down worldwide. Plus parishioners are getting older and then leaving as they retire to places like Florida. So smaller parishes, especially in pandemic-stricken neighborhoods, are struggling more than others In Queens, two priests have died and one parish lost 15 people to the virus.

QUAGLIONE: There are pockets of the diocese that I do worry about in terms of their ability to overcome the loss of life, the loss of finances, and the loss of that sense of community that has been present there.

FORREST: For now, the diocese has to hope their parishioners continue giving online, through the mail, or by dropping off collection envelopes at their church. But what’s compelling them to do so? Eileen Loughlin goes to church with John Quaglione at Saint Anselm . She still gives weekly.

EILEEN LOUGHLIN: This is where my husband and I were married. And it’s our responsibility to help. I'm not saying that everyone should go out and write a check, because I realized in this time that finances are difficult, but I believe if we can, we should.

FORREST: Speaking from her home in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Loughlin is both spiritual and practical in her reasoning.

LOUGHLIN: My husband and I own our home. And we understand that whether we're living in it or not, we have bills to pay. And unlike our little home, these bills are much bigger.

FORREST: Back at St Athanasius in Brooklyn, Monsignor Cassato says he has faith things will work out once this is all over. Brett Forrest, Columbia Radio News.


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