Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Financial Crisis Drains Wallets but Not Faith

By Margaret DeJesus (MargaretDeJesus88@gmail.com)

BOSTON--(Feb.10, 2009) The Rev. Peter Grover (left) greets parishioners after Sunday morning mass outside of Saint Clement Eucharistic Shrine on Boylston Street.
BOSTON—Peter Grover depends on a little extra to make ends meet: faith.
The pastor at Saint Clement Shrine on Boylston Street relies on his congregation to fill up four wicker baskets passed from pew to pew each Sunday morning.
Bunches of singles and five dollar bills float on the surface, a handful of spare change clinks below, and a few folded checks and a twenty or two hide within the typical basket.
“It’s just enough to get by,” said Grover in an interview at the church.
Through the generous donations of parishioners, churches and synagogues are able to operate. But as thousands of Americans lose their jobs, housing markets flounder and stock prices continue to plunge, contributions may not be as easy to come by. Some religious institutions are feeling the effects of the financial crisis while others are still stable.
Grover was always a cost cutter spending only on the “essentials,” air conditioning not being one of them. And if the roof needs fixing, he’s more than happy to “go up there and work on it myself.”
“My staff consists of me, a part time secretary and a noisy bird,” he said while Buddy, his grey and white cockatiel given to him as a birthday gift, chirped wildly in the background.
His parish along with Saint Cecilia, another Roman Catholic church in the Back Bay are holding steady.
“I think people in tough economic times give to the things that are most meaningful to them. To many of our folks, their relationship with the church is most meaningful,” said Mark Lippolt, a member of Saint Cecilia’s finance council in a telephone interview.
The parish finances are primarily raised through pledged annual or monthly donations by parishioners through the offertory commitment program. Lippolt said the level of contributions has remained the same.
“When we had our giving tree this past Christmas, there were a lot more needy people but everyone one of them was taken care of thanks to the donations we got. There’s a lot of spirit here,” said Marge Boyce, who’s been going to the parish for three years and hasn’t changed her giving habits.
According to Bruce Watson, an economics professor at Boston University, it’s still too early to tell.
“Everything tends to work on a lag in economics,” said Watson adding that a church’s location could also determine how it’s affected.
At Our Lady of Lourdes in Jamaica Plain, the economic downturn propelled more immediate effects. The parish’s Catholic school, located in a working class neighborhood, is scheduled to close this June with a current budget deficit of $240,000 according to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston’s website.
“We don’t have enough money in the bank,” said Brendan Buckley, a friar and the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Buckley has already had to let go of a custodian and cut back on part time workers in order to avoid “asking people to donate more money.” But he made it clear that since a parish is a “family of families,” people should be informed of its fiscal position so they can help maintain it.
“We have to educate people so they are not in the dark about our (the parish) financial realities,” he said in an interview outside of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel.
Although he hasn’t noticed a drop in Sunday collection money, Buckley said he has talked with several parishioners who have lost jobs in the restaurant and hotel industries. He also noticed food pantry donations are down and requests are up.
The 56-year-old who spent years working with youth in rough neighborhoods in East Harlem and Brooklyn said he’s optimistic of his church’s future.
“Faith doesn’t pay the bills.” Buckley nodded in a momentary flash of defeatism. “But it gives us (people) the inspiration to overcome the struggles we have,” he said.
Synagogues and private Jewish schools also aren’t immune to the recession. According to Rabbi Avi Heller of Boston University’s Hillel House, many synagogues have expensive membership dues that could cost as much as $1000 annually.
“Synagogues don't turn people away who don't pay dues, but there is a level of expectation that if you are a regular you will contribute to keep the institution afloat,” said Heller in an email.
“I’m sure that requests for financial aid from schools and from synagogues asking for reduced dues will go way up. But the schools will be hard pressed to meet those demands because so many of them will suffer on the donation and investment side,” he said.
“I haven't seen a drop in our overall collections but I know people are worried. Some have lost jobs and some are giving less. It's important to be aware of what's happening around us and tune in to how people are dealing with all the changes,” said Eugene Lee, pastor of Cornerstone, an Evangelical church on Newbury Street geared toward college students.
Sitting in a worn out armchair in a back room of Saint Clement Shrine, the Rev. Grover reminisced how his father lived through the Great Depression and survived on a cup of oil for heating.
“If the economy falls apart people can gain strength in other ways. You learn a lot when you have a little,” he said.

To view the complete financial report of the Archdiocese of Boston on the web from the fiscal year ending in June 2007, the most recent records posted, or the previous two years visit: http://www.rcab.org/Finance/

To view a recent financial report of Saint Cecilia Roman Catholic Church visit:

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