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Church step closer to reality

Our Lady of Fatima Church sits behind locked fences Wednesday under gloomy overcast skies. 
 (Christopher Anderson/ / The Spokesman-Review)
Our Lady of Fatima Church sits behind locked fences Wednesday under gloomy overcast skies. (Christopher Anderson/ / The Spokesman-Review)

A generous six-figure gift from an anonymous donor has brought Our Lady of Fatima parishioners even closer to achieving their dream: celebrating Mass in an actual church building.

That dream was put on hold last month, after the Diocese of Spokane decided it had no choice but to file for bankruptcy. Fatima had been counting on a loan from the diocese, but the money fell through.

Now, after a fund-raising campaign initiated less than two weeks ago, the South Hill parish has $485,000 in pledges toward the $600,000 it needs to finish its new worship space. All but $100 has come from church members, said the Rev. Jim Kuhns, Fatima’s pastor.

And $450,000 of the amount has been pledged in cash.

The Diocese of Spokane’s bankruptcy filing this week hasn’t discouraged parishioners from giving to their churches and schools. In Tucson, Ariz., another diocese that filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year, donations have actually gone up.

Although some Catholics in Spokane have expressed confusion about what will happen to their money, parish priests continue to assure donors that when they give to a specific cause, the money can’t be used for anything else. In other words, the contributions won’t be used toward bankruptcy costs or sexual-abuse claims.

“When people give a donation for a specific purpose, the trust laws in this state are very narrow and very protective of the money being used for the intention of the giver,” said Kuhns.

Money contributed toward the completion of Our Lady of Fatima will be used only for the new church, he said.

For now, the money that goes into the collection plate every Sunday also will remain in that specific parish, said the Rev. Steve Dublinski, vicar general of the Spokane Diocese. In the long term, however, that may not be the case. “We don’t know what the ultimate plan for the diocese will be,” he said.

Last month, when the diocese first announced it will file for bankruptcy protection, Bishop William Skylstad noted that except for the money raised during the Annual Catholic Appeal and other special collections, money placed in the offertory plate every Sunday will stay in that particular church. But depending on the outcome of the bankruptcy proceeding, he’s not sure if some of that money will eventually be used to pay victims’ claims.

“We’re a diocesan family,” the bishop said. “Everyone will be part of the effort.”

Two years ago, the Tucson diocese borrowed about $5 million from its parishes to finance a litigation settlement with victims of abuse. That debt has yet to be paid, making the parishes the largest creditor in the diocese’s bankruptcy proceeding.

In Spokane, several parishes have also been listed among the creditors holding the largest unsecured claims. At the top of the list are the roughly 125 alleged abuse victims who want a total of nearly $76 million.

Next in line is St. Mary Presentation, a church made up of about 230 families in Deer Park, with a claim of nearly $1 million. Also on the list are Sacred Heart in Othello, Sacred Heart Church on the South Hill and several other parishes who are owed anywhere from $76,000 to almost $267,000. Bishop White Seminary is also listed as a creditor for about $75,000. The diocese also owes about $103,000 to All Saints School, the only school included in the top 20.

According to the petition filed Monday in the Eastern District of Washington’s U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the diocese estimates it has between 200 and 999 total creditors.

In Tucson, Sunday donations to the parishes have increased slightly, despite the initial controversy surrounding the Chapter 11 filing, according to Fred Allison, spokesman for the diocese.

Bishop Gerald Kicanas started discussing bankruptcy as an option last year, but that didn’t deter the diocese from raising money. In fact, the Annual Catholic Appeal in Tucson raised a record $3.3 million earlier this year – an 18 percent increase compared with the previous year. Tucson’s Annual Catholic Appeal is also separately incorporated and can’t be used to pay bankruptcy costs. This was done two years ago, after the diocese reached a $14 million settlement with 10 men who were allegedly abused by four priests in the diocese.

Spokane’s Annual Catholic Appeal is not separately incorporated, but Dublinski said the diocese is considering the possibility.

Every diocese has an Annual Catholic Appeal, which is a diocesewide campaign to support the various ministries and programs of the Catholic Church. In February, parishioners will be asked to make a commitment to this campaign.

The Archdiocese of Portland – which was the first in the country to file for bankruptcy – can’t tell if filing for bankruptcy protection has created a slump in contributions, according to Bud Bunce, the archdiocese’s director of communications. The archdiocese doesn’t receive reports from churches, he said, so it has no way of measuring people’s monetary support. Anecdotally, his own parish hasn’t seen a significant decrease, he said.

Last February, the Portland Archdiocese received 8 percent more money during the Annual Catholic Appeal compared with the previous year, he said. The Spokane Diocese also surpassed its $10 million goal last February, by nearly $14,000.

Sally Cole, a longtime member of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in north Spokane, said she is still giving to her parish but she won’t give to the diocese. But if a bankruptcy judge in the end decides that the individual churches’ assets belong to the diocese, she won’t donate another dime, she said. “As long as the money doesn’t go downtown, I will continue to give,” she said.

When Kuhns told Fatima parishioners about the substantial donation at Mass earlier this month, his announcement was greeted with applause, whistles and huge sighs of relief, he said.

“It was very encouraging to people,” said Kuhns, who was asked not to reveal the amount of the gift. “There is hope again.”

Fatima’s new church was supposed to be finished in December, but the parish could no longer get the loan it needed from the diocese due to the complications of the bankruptcy. The news disappointed people, especially longtime members who have been waiting for decades to worship in an actual church.

Now that the parish is roughly $115,000 away from raising the money it needs, construction will be able to start again by early January, Kuhns said. The new church could be completed by February, he said.

Parishioners, in general, “have a great concern for the victims and they have a great desire for the ministry of the church to continue,” said Kuhns. At Fatima, “there is a determination that we’re going to go ahead and build this church.”

As a sign of their hopefulness, members of the parish plan to decorate their unfinished church with lights, greenery and other decorations for Christmas.