When Cardinal James Francis McIntyre established the then-called Archbishop’s Fund in 1951, he had a few simple, down-to-earth goals in mind. 

The prelate, who had worked his way up from a runner to junior partner in a Wall Street firm, was a no-nonsense businessman and late vocation to the priesthood. First, he wanted the fund’s money to go to the “neediest of the needy” who had suffered sudden financial emergencies. Maybe a parent just lost his job, and rent was overdue. Or the pantry was almost bare in a single-parent house with five children, waiting for the welfare check that never came. 

He wanted the fund to be handled by the local pastor, or his associate, at the parish level. They would know the emergency needs of their flock better than anyone. Paperwork would be kept to a minimum: just an ID, rent or other bill, or a request form signed by the pastor. In many cases, a check could be written right on the spot.

Msgr. Francis Hicks, pastor of St. Basil Church on Wilshire Boulevard, and executive director of the renamed Cardinal McIntyre Fund for Charity since 2009, has tried to keep it that way: simple and immediate.

“I think it’s a marvelous fund,” the 79-year-old priest told Angelus. “It’s very unique. We’re a niche foundation of between $4 million and $5 million. That’s small compared to most. And the thing is, we’re not trying to build it into an empire. That’s why we like to get rid of all the extra money we have at the end of the year through grants.

“There’s just myself and Gerri Spray, who works half time for us. So the only overhead is for Gerri’s salary and for postage and letters we send out. My salary is taken care of by St. Basil’s. So there’s very little overhead.”

Parishioners with an emergency come to the pastor or person heading up the fund in their parish. They spell out their problem, showing them their bills or eviction notice. If the pastor believes it’s a legitimate crisis, he can write out a check or checks to the landlord, hospital or doctor, utility company, whoever the parishioner owes money to.

The parish then sends copies of the bills, the parishioner’s ID, and paperwork to the Cardinal McIntyre Fund at the Archdiocesan Catholic Center in Los Angeles. There it’s processed and approved with Msgr. Hick’s signature before a reimbursement check is mailed back to the parish.

The whole transaction takes just two to three weeks.

“Why we at the fund try to do the turnaround so fast is because many of the poorer parishes really need that $1,000 or $1,500 — $2,000 for a Catholic funeral and burial — right back that they’ve given to the parishioner,” explained Msgr. Hicks. “The parish needs to get that money into their coffers as soon as possible. It’s a very immediate emergency fund that pastors can give away. So it helps them a lot.

“We just feel that we’re fortunate that we’re in position to assist them,” he added. “We can’t pay for everything. But we can help to alleviate a sudden problem a parishioner is having, up to $1,500. And that’s good, because I’m sure the Cardinal McIntyre Fund is going to be needed more than ever now with the pandemic. I’m absolutely sure of that.”

The vision of Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights can be put in a dozen words: “To walk with Christ who suffers, dies, and rises with our people.” And that’s exactly what the little church, established in 1925 and taken over by the Jesuit community 35 years later, does today, with financial support from the Cardinal McIntyre Fund.

That’s certainly what Rosa Bonilla, a member of the urban parish for more than 17 years, continues to do. As a pastoral assistant, she visits parishioners having fallen on hard times and listens to their stories. Only then does she pass their needs along to Ellie Hidalgo, pastoral associate, or the Jesuit pastor, Father Ted Gabrielli.

But she does much more. “It’s really like a ministry because it’s not just filling out a form,” Bonilla told Angelus. “I listen to their stories, what they’re going through. Then I talk to Ellie or Father Ted about how we can help them with the Cardinal McIntyre Fund.

“People in our parish, they know that we will try to help families when they have a dire need,” she said. “People know that about Dolores Mission. They usually come to the parish, and the parish secretary puts them in touch with me.”

Hidalgo said the parish is really grateful for the Cardinal McIntyre Fund for Charity, because it’s specifically geared to offer emergency funding. “It’s fast,” she said. “It doesn’t require a lot of paperwork. If somebody wants help for rent or to pay the electric bill, the check is made out to the landlord or the electric company right away.

“And they trust us,” she added. “We know when someone is coming and saying they’re in trouble. We can vouch for these families. The husband really did lose his job. This single mom is really having a hard time paying her rent. And rather than somebody losing their apartment or not having food so their children won’t go hungry, we can help them because of the fund.

“We’re on the ground assessing the needs of people,” the pastoral associate said. 

Because of the ongoing pandemic and its severe economic aftershocks, both Dolores Mission workers believe many more parishioners will need help getting through the crisis. 

“One of the saddest stories I heard this week was from a husband and wife,” recalled Bonilla. “The wife called me to tell me that both of them had been laid off from their jobs because of COVID-19. And they have five children. So we could help them pay their rent. I also gave them a list of places we know are giving away food at food pantries in Boyle Heights.”

After a moment, she said, “That’s something that I love about the Cardinal McIntyre Fund. I don’t just have the opportunity to offer some real material support to help a family. But I also get to listen to people who are going through a really hard time. And maybe I can give them some comfort.”

Like most employees of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Gerri Spray works mostly from home these days because of the coronavirus, sheltering in place. But on a recent Tuesday, when she came into the office to catch up on paperwork, her fifth-floor cubicle desk was piled high with letters from pastors. Inside were forms and copies of checks written for rent, medical bills, utilities, and other things parishioners couldn’t pay because of the economic meltdown. Pastors were asking the Cardinal McIntyre Fund to be reimbursed ASAP.

Spray splits her time between being executive assistant to the chancellor of the archdiocese and director of the fund. Many of the letters were in response to a message she had sent out to pastors. In it, they were told not to worry about going over the $5,000 limit typically approved to help parishioners pay the bills.

There were so many requests for financial help because of the pandemic, she made out a separate spreadsheet. The latest figure came to more than $60,000.

“Most of the ones that are coming in now are for housing and utilities,” she pointed out. “Many parishes are just putting down, ‘Lost their job because of the pandemic.’ And there’s probably more who didn’t specify that COVID-19 was the cause of their emergency, so I didn’t put them on the spreadsheet.

“Plus, parishes are continuing to assist people who come to the rectory with regular bills they can’t pay.”

Spray said it’s hard to read some of the requests. People may be living in their cars and putting their belongings in storage. The fund pays their storage bills. She readily agreed what makes the Cardinal McIntyre Fund special is how quickly it makes payment. But she worries that the annual collection for the fund in May now has to be pushed back to when the churches reopen.

“But they will, and we’ll have the collection,” she said. “And in the meantime, we’ll still be helping parishes help parishioners when an emergency happens.”

Donations to the Cardinal McIntyre Fund for Charity can be sent to 3424 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90010-2241. For more information, call 213-251-3438 or email [email protected].