Elizabeth Joseph, principal of St. Francis of Assisi School in Vista, Calif., Can be seen in this undated photo. (CNS Photo / courtesy Southern Cross)

If last year’s paycheck protection program was like a matching grant, causing recipients to stretch resources in order to maintain the payroll and stay afloat during the pandemic spring, then it has achieved that goal. , according to a participating church.

Father Ruben Arceo, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Vista, California, a medium-sized town north of San Diego, initially thought the terms of the PPP were such that they could put the parish in ruins if the loan was later not forgiven. But a future without PPP help looked just as bleak, if not darker then.

“I thought we were going to embark on a financial crisis, so we discerned, prayed about it with our financial council and decided to go ahead because we didn’t have enough funds and we were going to go into the hole anyway, ”Father Arceo told the Catholic News Service by telephone on February 12.

The CARES law, passed in March 2020, initially authorized some $ 350 billion in loans to small businesses through PPP, a program intended to allow them to continue paying their employees.

At the end of April, statistics compiled by the Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference showed that 8,000 parishes, 1,400 elementary schools, 700 secondary schools, 104 chanceries, 185 Catholic charities and 200 other diocesan organizations in 160 dioceses had requested help. at this moment.

A recent Associated Press investigative report on coronavirus relief funding criticized the Catholic Church’s involvement in PPP funding, saying its finances and unlimited cash flow were such as its churches and its schools were using the CARES 2020 law to accumulate money.

But each church entity that accepted the PPP was assessed on its own financial terms, meaning that the financial health of the local diocese or other Catholic church across town had no implications for the church that wanted to participate.

Father Ruben Arceo, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Vista, California, can be seen in this undated photo. (CNS Photo / Courtesy The Southern Cross) Editor’s Note: Image is black and white only.

In late March last year, as California and the rest of the country began to lock down businesses and public life, vital Sunday collections plummeted, especially in largely immigrant parishes and working class, such as St. Francis of Assisi in San Diego, where the prospect of completely moving parish and school fundraising and weekly online collections was unrealistic.

“My first concern was how I was going to pay my wages: almost 75% of our money (Sunday collection) goes to wages and benefits and there was no income with a closed church,” said Father Arceo.

“Most of our parish is made up of lower and working class people who work in the fields, restaurants, landscaping, construction work. We have around 7,000 families who make up our parish community and for us every penny counts, ”the priest told CNS.

When the PPP loan was approved and funds available, the large parish was able to maintain its staff of around 10, including a business and human resources manager; two secretaries; religious education directors for English and Spanish; a musical director; a communications coordinator for the website and social media platforms; marriage preparation coordinator; and planning and maintenance staff.

“We thought we wouldn’t be approved but it helped us pay our staff and teachers and move on and our church never closed – we closed our building but we had parking lot services and things continued to move forward, ”said Father Arceo. noted. The parish still offers a mix of indoor and outdoor weekend services.

“It was a relief of three months but in the end it came with a difficult experience because if we had to make any changes to our job it could affect if this loan could be canceled so we went in in the hole, “said the priest.

After the period of appraisal of the PPP and loan cancellation ended, most of the staff were placed on a part-time basis to preserve the parish budget as the pandemic continues and many members of the community suffer from reduced employment and income.

State unemployment assistance has only helped local families up to a point; many parishioners work part time or not at all. The gaps in parish finances over the past year have not been magically filled by P3s or any other emergency funding.

Father Arceo said the hardships of 2020 have taught the parish community a lot about how to work well together as families and staff, and how to stand firm and move forward using everything. which will help operations to continue.

When states started shutting down last spring, the virus was expected to be under control by July and churches were planning a short-term lockdown and soon they would return to their normal lives, the priest added. .

“We were surprised we didn’t do it,” said Father Arceo. “Money does not circulate as before. There is no way to prosper. The loan was useful but in the medium and long term we need our economy to move and we need our parents to go back and start working again.

When asked if the parish would request a second round of PPP funding this year if it is available, Father Arceo said it depends on the terms and conditions and the details of the loan.

At the parish’s St. Francis of Assisi School, Principal Elizabeth Joseph said last year’s pandemic closures had plunged the school into an immediate crisis mode where they went into learning mode virtual for most students.

The school reimbursed the school fees of a number of families of preschoolers who could not be accommodated by virtual learning, while other families of schools have left school completely , opting for home schooling, charter schools and other solutions.

“Our enrollment in the fall was down because the parents didn’t know what was going to happen and they did charter and home school,” Joseph told CNS, adding that all safety measures and Investments in new technologies cost the school approximately $ 50,000. The school now operates in a hybrid mix of in-person lessons and virtual student learning.

“Without the PPP at that time, we would not have been able to keep our school afloat,” said Joseph. “Even with the PPP loan, we didn’t give a raise this year, but the professors all came back because they said, ‘We want to do this. “”

According to the diocesan vice-chancellor of San Diego, a workers’ parish like Saint Francis of Assisi is made up of families “of the salt of the earth” from all walks of life and bears witness to the universality of the Catholic Church. and spokesperson Kevin Eckery.

Eckery said the PPP program has saved hundreds of jobs in the diocese, including around 280 school teacher positions.

“It was a great program, in the spirit of what Congress intended to help workers by spending it on payroll,” he told CNS, “and he did not promoted church ministries but allowed the economy to enter a deep freeze so that when the pandemic is over we can restart lives. ”