The PPP loan that the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Glenville received helped the parish keep alive its mission during the pandemic. (Mike Matvey photo)
The PPP loan that the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Glenville received helped the parish keep alive its mission during the pandemic. (Mike Matvey photo)

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This column was first published by America Magazine and is reprinted with their permission.)

Looking back over the past four months offers a stunning perspective. I have taken lots of trips in my life, including a five-week pilgrimage on foot, but nothing compares to the journey of being a church worker at this moment in time. It is difficult to recollect it all, and looking forward brings its own challenges. What a reminder to stay rooted in the present moment with God.

When the COVID-19 shutdown began, the parish where I work in upstate New York entered a period of uncertainty. It is a busy and thriving parish, and as pastoral associate for administration, I am keenly aware of our budget and what it takes to keep the parish running. Salaries aside, there are utility bills, regular upkeep of several buildings, parking lot repairs and more. The costs for catechetical materials, technology for daily operations, and liturgical and office supplies add up over time. I felt certain that a layoff or furlough was coming.

But despite the suspension of Masses, our phones continued to ring. People were reaching out with needs both spiritual and material. Sometimes they were simply seeking the comfort of knowing that a light was still on at church for them. Yet would we be able to continue to be a refuge?

Now I can see that the grace of God includes many things, like the generosity of our parishioners. It also includes the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program. When the possibility of applying for loans arose, I first felt appalled and did not want to pursue it. I worried it was somehow unethical. Yet as the process moved forward, and as the person responsible for gathering information and documentation, I began to see things in a new light.

Last week, a report from The Associated Press article spread numerous misconceptions about the PPP and the Catholic Church. Its headline screamed, “Catholic Church lobbied for taxpayer funds, got $1.4B.” An accompanying photo of the lavish interior of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City implied that the Church was taking funds meant to sustain employment at small businesses and instead using it for other purposes.

The visceral reaction to the Church receiving such funds was understandable, but the reality is another story. The A.P.’s misstatements made for a confusing article that was bound to stoke fires of anger. The author claimed that a typical diocese should be ineligible for the program because as a single entity (one that supposedly includes “head offices, parishes and other affiliates”), its workforce exceeds 500 employees. That claim helped to create a highly clickable story, but it was inaccurate. In fact, nonprofit and faith-based groups were granted a waiver from the 500-employee cap that still applies to private-sector firms applying for aid. In addition, each parish was eligible to apply for PPP funds individually. I estimate that the majority of parishes in the Diocese of Albany have fewer than 20 employees each. If the goal of the AP article was to inform, it failed.

The ire generated by the article laid bare the misunderstanding of Church financial structure and management. The lack of clarity about these things is often due to the Church not being clear about its structures and finances, but the reporter’s job was to reveal the truth, and this was not it.

What happened at the diocesan level is unknown to me, but I can address how an individual parish applied for the loan and put it to good use. We worked closely with our small local bank in order to apply. Our diocesan finance office made sure we had all the information necessary to pursue the loan, but it was up to us to handle the details. The bank clearly explained the program requirements, which included documentation of one month of payroll costs. (This was so no applicant could pluck a number out of thin air and ask for that amount.) The loan was for 2.5 months’ worth of salaries. I can tell you, at least in our case, that amount was not enough to be considered a money grab.

When our pastor signed the application, he was agreeing to live up to the requirements for the loan. This meant that anyone who had been furloughed or laid off because of the pandemic had to be reinstated. Any funds not used for salaries could be used for utilities. Using the funds for mortgages or rent was also allowed (but we have neither of those costs). The money could not be allocated for anything nonessential.

It is important to consider the larger value of this loan to our parish and the wider community. We are able to be here for people who call on us in need — which has not been an insignificant number.

People who are lonely, sad, scared or grieving can find someone to talk to. We have written notes and letters to cheer the homebound — a term that took on greater meaning when nearly everyone had to be there. We have launched an initiative where we call to check in on all registered parishioners with the help of staff and volunteers. It was something that we feared would annoy some folks, but we learned that it delighted many to hear from us.

If someone requires more than pastoral assistance, we offer material support in the form of food, gas cards or various other goods. We have streamed Mass four days a week and offered Facebook live events. During Lent, we offered a weekly soup lunch, complete with contactless delivery. Our town leadership asked us to coordinate with them on a meal program. Thanks to generous donations to that effort, we purchased gift cards from local restaurants. These gift cards are used to help feed the elderly and the homebound, and they help local businesses carry on in an uncertain environment.

If this was all a money grab or a con to use funds for something nefarious, I cannot imagine how it would be done. Before criticizing the inclusion of religious organizations in the PPP, our true catholicity calls on us not to assume the worst. There are plenty of reasons to be cynical or angry about the state of our world and our Church, but this should not be one of them.

Would it be better for our staff to go without pay and add to the current woes? Would it be better if we were not present to do God’s work? Given the great needs of our time, I am grateful beyond measure for the PPP. Along with the generous members of our community, it has kept us going.

Fran Rossi Szpylczyn is a writer and pastoral associate for administration at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Glenville.