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Tampa Bay religious organizations received millions in federal coronavirus loans

Faith leaders say the Paycheck Protection Program was crucial to saving jobs and continuing their ministries.
Elena Miyaras, 83, (foreground right) prays during morning services at Saint Jude the Apostle Cathedral on May 31.
Elena Miyaras, 83, (foreground right) prays during morning services at Saint Jude the Apostle Cathedral on May 31. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Jul. 18, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Religious organizations around the country have received billions in Paycheck Protection Program loans, federal aid meant to help small businesses survive the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s news that has put faith groups, especially the Roman Catholic Church, on the defensive and at pains to explain their need for the government funds. An Associated Press investigation estimated the Catholic Church received at least $1.4 billion in the federal loans.

As one, local religious leaders say the money has helped them to keep employees or welcome back those who were furloughed, and to continue charitable commitments in a time of great need.

Related: Churches across Tampa Bay grapple with coronavirus economic fallout

“We often think that church is just a place for religious service,” said the Rev. Elizabeth H. Shannon, associate presbyter for emerging ministries at the Presbytery of Tampa Bay. “There are a huge amount of educational and mission services that impact our whole community, whether you worship in those churches or not.”

The Diocese of St. Petersburg, which spans five counties in the Tampa Bay area, received $1.2 million for its pastoral center, home to its administrative offices and ministries. Early in the pandemic, salaries were cut for its staff, including Bishop Gregory Parkes. The cuts remain in place, according to Frank Murphy, secretary for administration.

Close to 80 parishes, schools and charities in the diocese also applied for the federal loans, the diocese said.

“These are all separate employers with fewer than 500 employees,” the diocese said in a statement. “The Paycheck Protection Program loans were on average about $220,000 per employer and kept employees on the payroll so they could afford housing and medical expenses, food and other household bills.”

Catholic Charities, of which Murphy is president, also got $1,023,000.

“Twenty-three people who were furloughed, we were able to bring back and pay them for two months,” he said. “It was a blessing for us.”

But Calvary Baptist Church of Clearwater returned the $1.6 million it got for its school and church.

“We decided to return it, because we didn’t feel like in good conscience we could say we needed it,“ Pastor Willy Rice said in a text. The church also had concerns about the “potential entanglements” of accepting government funds and thought that doing so might be used “as a criticism against churches,” Rice said.

“However,” he added, “we in no way want to be critical of those who did accept funds and may have had very pressing needs.”

Leaders at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area mosque, which operates a school and has about 50 employees, did not apply for the program.

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“We just did not feel the need for it,” administrator Mohamed Aqad said.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), with 1.3 million members across the country and overseas, received $8.8 million for its national office. Spokesman Rick Jones said it has been used mainly to help with payroll. Locally, the Tampa Bay Presbytery and some of its churches also received Paycheck Protection loans. The Presbytery, which has about five employees, got $44,000, Shannon said.

Tampa’s Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church, which has more than 2,000 members and operates a preschool, received a $336,000 federal loan, the Rev. John DeBevoise said.

“The loan is important for the continuance of church operations and the support of the livelihood and shelter and feeding of the employees here, members of the community,” he said in an email. “We are using it to help cover utilities at the church, and compensation for the 49 staff members at the church and school.”

It was in April that Jovita Carranza, with the Small Business Administration, clarified that faith-based organizations were eligible to participate in the Paycheck Protection Program, saying that the pandemic was particularly hurting schools, places of worship and underrepresented communities.

Dorothy Bowser, president of Congregation B’nai Israel in St. Petersburg, said the synagogue received $100,000 from the program.

“We wanted to make sure we could protect our staff’s employment and at the same time build a platform for communication to our community,” she said. “We have been able to have a pretty robust virtual synagogue Friday night service, Saturday Shabbat services and educational programming.”

In the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida, 55 of its congregations, which provide 485 jobs, received a total of $2.7 million. In addition, the diocesan office and its DaySpring Conference Center in Parrish got $347,000, said chief financial officer Anne Vickers. The funding does not include money received by Episcopal schools, she said.

“When this all happened in April, it was the beginning of the uncertainty of the pandemic,” she said. “Nobody knew, or do we know, when the end will be and how it would impact giving. And many of our churches are also landlords for schools and other mission organizations. Our food distribution ministries are critical to the resiliency of our community.”

Monsignor Robert C. Gibbons, pastor of St. Paul’s Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, which operates both a school and daycare, said the parish got $255,000 for its school of 50 employees. The church itself, which has 29 employees, received $152,400.

“What I had decided was, I didn’t want to let anybody go, including the people that were not working because their work had disappeared,” Gibbons said, referring to aides and other staff at the school, which held virtual classes until the end of the school year, and the daycare, which closed with the shutdown.

“We were able to pay everybody and their benefits at 100 percent,” Gibbons said. “It kept the daycare employees employed. ... It really was a godsend to us.”

The Church of Scientology also received funding for six of its organizations, two based in Tampa Bay.

Its Belleair mission, which offers introductory courses and services, took a loan for up to $350,000 to support a reported 37 jobs. Narcanon Suncoast, its drug rehabilitation facility on Sunset Point Road in Clearwater, received up to $350,000. The Citizens Commission for Human Rights based in Los Angeles, a group that advocates against psychiatry, also received funding and has an office in downtown Clearwater.

Hundreds of thousands of businesses also received loans, and federal officials say it saved 51 million jobs. The Tampa Bay Times and its related companies received $8.5 million through the program.

Times Staff Writers Jay Cridlin and Tracey McManus contributed to this report.