BRIDGEPORT—When Father Skip Karcsinski looks back on the challenges Blessed Sacrament Church confronted during the COVID lockdown, he says they would have been insurmountable if his parish did not receive a grant from Foundations in Faith to overhaul its technology and communications systems.
So many problems that had been endurable before quickly reached crisis proportions with the pandemic, or as Father Skip puts it, “COVID changed everything.”
The parish phone system was completely outdated and couldn’t receive or leave messages. A former employee, now deceased, who had worked at the church 18 years ago had recorded the prompts … and nothing had changed in almost 20 years.
Because the outdated parish technology was linked together, Blessed Sacrament needed a complete overhaul of the phones, alarm system, office computers, software, Internet, doorbells, security system and cameras…not to mention the website. In addition, the pandemic made it necessary to live-stream services and conduct religious education classes online with Zoom. The list was a long one, and the project took nine months.
“That’s how bad our situation was,” he recalls. “They asked me, ‘How can you possibly function like this?’ You see, we are a very hands-on parish, and our people prefer to visit in person rather than use the phone. We functioned well enough until COVID. This grant changed everything. It was providential and allowed us to continue to serve our people during very difficult circumstances.”
Blessed Sacrament is the first church in the Diocese of Bridgeport to receive the Francis Xavier Technology & Communication Enhancement Grant for missionary parishes, from Foundations in Faith, which is supported by the We Stand With Christ Campaign.
Kelly Weldon, director of Foundations in Faith, said: “This was a huge success for us. The Blessed Sacrament team dug deep and embraced technology and all the learning and changes that go along with a significant upgrade. They were willing to step out of their comfort zone and the results speak for themselves.”
Weldon said that because of the pandemic, pastors had to shift gears quickly and embrace a lot of new technology that would let them connect with their parishioners and bring Mass into their homes. Those who had never before filled out an online form suddenly found themselves live-streaming Mass to hundreds, if not thousands, of people.
“Our parishes with financial burdens—our missionary parishes—did not have the technology they needed to do this,” she said. “And Joe Sindelar, vice chairman of Foundations in Faith and the board advocate of the St. Francis Xavier Fund, recognized the importance of getting Mass live-streamed everywhere in the diocese.”
The project was undertaken by Liz Tamarkin and her company Newfound Consulting LLC, which assessed the scope of the upgrade and implemented the changes with the parish team.
“Each grant application begins with an in-depth interview to get to know the parish community, how they like to communicate, and understand where the parish is currently with their technology infrastructure and use,” Tamarkin said. “I have been amazed at how these pastors push forward with things like phone systems that haven’t worked in years, staff members without computers, or a church with a broken sound system. The SFX Fund allows these burdens to be lifted and makes it easier for the pastors and their administrative team to serve their community.”
Father Skip said everything that interfered with the life of the parish because of COVID was greatly remedied by the grant and the new technology.
“We even had a couple of Zoom retreats, which have been great fun, and the children are still receiving religious education online, which is overseen by Karen Soares-Robinson our director of religious education,” he said.
And while the children adapted quickly to the technological changes, Father Skip concedes that he and his staff “needed a lot of tutoring and mentoring and some personnel help, which the grant provided.”
The parish was also able to bring on a retired educator, Natalie Foust, to work with ParishSOFT, a church management software that interfaces with the diocese.
“We are coming along, and we needed a lot of patience,” he says, “so we’re very grateful to Liz and her team.”
Father Skip, who has been a priest 42 years and pastor for nine, said he is especially grateful for the grant from Foundations in Faith and the patience of the people who completed the work over a period of nine months.
“They were troopers,” he said. “It was more involved and complicated than they anticipated.”
“I compliment the SFX committee on looking at a full approach to helping these parishes move forward, which includes training and support,” Tamarkin said. “They understand that putting new hardware in place will only benefit the parish if the pastor and staff understand how to integrate it into their daily use. They also understand that ongoing training and support allows the parish team to grow in their use of the technology. I’ve really enjoyed seeing eyes light up when a team member learns how much time their new skills are going to save them or how to collaborate with their team to work together.”
And what about that antiquated phone system?
Tamarkin said that the new phone system allows people to call at any time and get the information they need from the auto-attendant on everything from Mass and Confession times to cancelations and parish events, in both English and Spanish. They can also leave messages for the parish staff, which is especially important when office hours are limited.
Tamarkin and her team have now begun work at St. George Church in Bridgeport, which will be followed by St. Mary of Stamford Parish.
The St. Francis Xavier grants are available to “missionary parishes,” which Weldon defined as those that are vibrant in their communities with strong pastoral and lay leadership, and excellent ministries and outreach. They are in urban environments and dealing with socioeconomic burdens.
“We are in constant contact with our missionary parishes about their needs,” Weldon said. “When they express a need that falls under technology and communications, the program is explained to them. This is so important because every pastor and every parish deserves to have the same quality and ability to connect with parishioners and share the good news about the work they are doing.”
Weldon urges anyone who would like to donate or support the St. Francis Xavier Technology & Communication Grants or other initiatives of Foundations in Faith to contact her at email@example.com.