When Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., made the difficult, but inevitable decision in late March that the churches would need to temporarily close because of the coronavirus pandemic, he knew that the shutdown would exact a profound toll on the parish communities, both spiritually and financially. While livestreamed Masses could quickly be arranged to provide the faithful with some form of spiritual sustenance during the separation from their church, there were no immediate remedies for many parishes that saw the weekly offertory literally dry up in an instant.

To help parishes stay connected with their communities and navigate through the financial shortfalls, the Diocese set up a COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund soon after the shutdown began. Donors were invited to give through an online form that allowed them to specify the parish to which they wanted their donation directed.  In addition to parish support, donors could also direct funds to diocesan operations, which was impacted by the financial difficulties experienced at the parish level.

Information published when the fund was established stipulated that all gifts would be donor-directed to one or both of the following areas:

PARISH OFFERTORY CONTINUITY • This would go to the designated parishes, which rely on the generosity of their members, through their weekly offertory gifts, to cover expenses related to ministry, utilities, maintenance, staffing, community outreach programs and other pressing needs. The designated parishes will receive 100 percent of the funds; there are no administrative fees charged by the Diocese.

DIOCESAN OPERATIONS AND MINISTRY NEEDS • Diocesan offices and ministries supported Bishop O’Connell’s outreach to his flock via online messages, videos and livestreamed Masses during the shutdown. Funds went to support these communications and technology needs, as well as Chancery operations. Specifically, the fund helped the Diocese provide ongoing health care coverage for all parish, school and diocesan staff, including those who were furloughed as a cost-cutting measure. 

In a report delivered to diocesan officers in mid-August, Steve Nicholl, director of the Department of Development, noted that the COVID-19 Emergency Fund received $62,294.30 from donors.  Approximately 600 gifts were received, with $41,130 directed to 51 different parishes, and $21,164.10 directed to diocesan operations and ministry needs. 

Bishop O’Connell acknowledged the generous response in a recent note of thanks.  He wrote, “I wish to express my deep personal gratitude to the faithful of the Diocese of Trenton for their characteristic generosity in contributing to the Diocese’s COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund during the past few months. Although we continue to face the consequences of the pandemic and will for some time, the gradual but steady resumption of parish life has once again begun to relieve some of the financial burdens occasioned by the restrictions imposed by the Coronavirus.  I am so grateful to those who offered such wonderful assistance.  May the Lord bless you for your generosity.”

Considering that the pandemic has inflicted financial pain on many families, the generosity to this emergency fund has been remarkable, Nicholl said. 

While many of the gifts are modest, they came at a time when some of the less-technologically equipped parishes reported as much as a 60 percent drop in the weekly offertory.  Those parishes that already had online giving established reported more manageable dips, less than 20 percent of the normal offertory in many cases.

Nicholl observed that more parishes have established online giving and other digital means of connecting with their communities as a result of the shutdown.  This is proving critically important, he said, given that Mass attendance remains limited with COVID precautions, and it is not as yet known when things will return to full capacity. 

“We are happy to see some restoration of parish offertory giving, and we ask the faithful who have not yet done so to find a way to financially assist their parish if their personal circumstances allow,” Nicholl said. 

If you would like to give to the  COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, go to dioceseoftrenton.org/covid-19-emergency-fund.  You will be asked to designate your gift to the parish of your choice, and/or to diocesan operations and ministry needs.

Bennett also serves as executive director of the Office of Communications and Media.