From the mail bag 1

Here at the world headquarters of the National Catholic Reporter, we get a lot of reader mail. Some of it are letters to the editor, which are printed in the newspaper. Some envelopes contain newspaper clippings with penciled in comments like: "Can you believe this?" or "Thought you might want to see this."

In yesterday's mail was such an envelope. The clip came from the Yuma Sun of Yuma, Ariz. The page one headline reads: Large debt revealed at Immaculate Conception Church. The subhead reads: Diocese says nearly half a million deficit not dire, ministries will operate normally.

Here's the nut of the story: Early in August Msgr. Richard O'Keefe, who had just retired after 38 years as pastor of Immaculate Conception Church, wrote a letter to the parish expressing his concern over the parish's financial situation ($500,000 in debt) and took full responsibility for it.

In the letter, O'Keefe wrote (according to the Yuma Sun) that he had not been as strict with the budget has he should have been. "I had allowed spending -- for good and necessary things -- beyond our resources."

The diocese, which regularly audits parish finances, was well aware of the debt situation, Fred Allison, communications director for the Tucson diocese told the newspaper. The situation is "serious," Allison said, "but it is by no means a dire financial crisis." All the money, apparently, is owed to the diocese.

Yuma is has a population of about 90,000. Part of the Tucson diocese, Yuma has three Catholic parishes, two Catholic grade schools with about 240 students each, and one Catholic high school with about 270 students. (These figures come from The Official Catholic Directory 2010.) Immaculate Conception Parish was founded in 1866.

Allison didn't give specific amounts, but he said a large portion of the debt was due to tuition payments O'Keefe made for families struggling in the parish grade school and high school.

Now here's were the story gets good.

The new pastor, Fr. Javier Perez, wrote his own letter and read it at all the Masses the weekend of Aug. 12. Perez said that he had met with the pastoral and finance councils, and they devised a short term plan for meeting operational requirements -- cutting some staff and many expenses -- and are working on a strategic plan to return the parish to financial stability.

Regrettably, the short-term plan required laying off two parish employees and two Franciscan sisters "have agreed to work without compensation," Perez told the newspaper. Furthermore, Perez said he is meeting regularly with the finance and pastoral councils to keep the budget on track. He also said he will provide parishioners with quarterly reports.

I have to admit the two sisters working without compensation is very worrying, and should be rethought, but otherwise, it looks like Perez is on track: he has demonstrated transparency, collegiality and management prudence.

While a $500,000 debt is a shocker, Immaculate Conception in Yuma, may be a model of right action on parish finances. Good luck to Fr. Perez and the people of Immaculate Conception.

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