In late March, the Catholic Community Foundation of Minnesota (CCF) established a new fund to help parishes cope with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Minnesota Catholic Relief Fund (MCRF) provides emergency support to help Catholic parishes and schools tackle new and unexpected challenges created by a shape-shifting crisis with no clear end in sight.
Plans Take on New Urgency
In Jordan, Minnesota, St. John the Baptist’s steeple is the highest point in town. “We are literally a light for the valley,” says pastor Fr. Neil Bakker. Like many parishes, St. John the Baptist got its first glimpse of the COVID era following Archbishop Hebda’s announcement on March 12 that suspended the obligation for Catholics to attend Sunday Mass. Collections the following weekend were down 40 percent.
“Normally, we’d have 180–200 people at Sunday Mass, but on that weekend, we had maybe 100,” says Jonathan Brandtner, parish administrator and lifelong member of the church. “After the state shutdown with the church closed entirely, we figured we’d be lucky to make even that much. That’s when we did a cash flow forecast.”
With Jonathan’s background in accounting, he was quick to reach a grim conclusion. “We estimated we’d be out of money by the end of summer, even if we used funds dedicated for other things.”
Fr. Bakker described the early days of the stay-at-home order as a scary time for himself and fellow pastors. “We didn’t know what was coming,” he says. “At some parishes, income was down 60 to 70 percent. With that kind of sudden drop, you have to ask, how do we make our next payroll?”
Fr. Bakker had already been thinking about live broadcasting Masses online. After the stay-at-home order was in place, those plans took on new urgency. “We sent out a short survey to parishioners asking if they thought it was a good idea to stream services online, and if they objected to using funds from parish investments to pay for it,” Fr. Bakker said. “Everyone agreed this was something we needed to do.”
MCRF Provides Crucial Support in Early Days of Crisis
As St. John the Baptist grappled with their new reality, they received an invitation from CCF to apply for a grant from the newly established MCRF. Fortunately, when the COVID-19 crisis in Minnesota became evident, CCF’s leadership had quickly mapped out a strategy to support cash-strapped parishes. MCRF grants are unrestricted awards of $5,000–$15,000 that can be used for operating expenses not covered by loans from the Paycheck Protection Program.
St. John the Baptist used the $8,000 grant they received to set up streaming services, which included buying a new camera and microphones and running the necessary cables throughout the 120-year-old church.
Connecting to Parishioners Near and Far
When St. John the Baptist began streaming Sunday Mass on YouTube, they expected to garner some viewers across the metro area — former parishioners who’d left Jordan to take a job in the Cities, for example. They did that and more, with analytics showing viewers from as far as the Philippines. “For the Easter Vigil, we had 4,000 people tune in,” marvels Fr. Bakker. “We only have 600 families in our parish.”
More important was the positive feedback from the community. “Doing this really kept us connected to our parishioners,” says Jonathan. “It’s allowed us to continue growing the fruit.”
Collections have recovered but are still down compared to last year, and with fundraisers like the Fall Festival on hold, Fr. Bakker is grateful he didn’t need to use money from church investments to cover the cost of streaming. Money will be tight for a while, but he’s a little less worried now.
“Having a fund like this at CCF provided a good safety net and gave us some reassurance that we have a place where we can ask for help when we need it.”