Economy drives employment groups in churches

COLUMBIA — Economic woes plaguing the nation and the state of South Carolina are also being felt in the Catholic community.

As more people lose jobs, some parishes have started or are planning programs to help those who have been laid off. And a popular source for Catholic items in the Midlands is joining the line of businesses forced to shut down because of lagging sales.

The owners of St. Francis Catholic Shop in Columbia announced they will close  by Feb. 28.

Deacon Greg Weigold, who runs the business with his wife Maureen, said sales have been down in recent months and are not keeping pace with the expenses of running the store.

The shop moved to Bush River Road in late 2007 from a smaller site in a complex off Ashland Road near Our Lady of the Hills Church.

The Weigolds have run the store since 2001. They sell merchandise ranging from Catholic Bibles and spiritual books to statues and hard-to-find items.  They also maintain a Web site and will special order for customers.

Deacon Weigold said he hates to leave the site because it attracts so many people who come in spontaneously after seeing their sign.

“We never had walk-ins at the old location, and here we’ll get people who come in off the street or people who have pulled in off Interstate 20,” he said.

“A lot of people are looking for information about joining the church, or are coming back to the church,” he said. “They aren’t afraid to come in here because they feel nobody is going to pressure them.”

Sales at the store started to fall last summer when gas prices spiked, Deacon Weigold said. They never recovered after the economic crisis escalated in the fall.

“A lot of our customers are elderly and on fixed incomes,” he said.

The couple still plans to sell Catholic goods out of two trucks. The weekend sales at parishes and diocesan events are a regular source of business.

Deacon Weigold said he is not giving up hope that he may find another way to keep the shop open, but for now St. Francis is holding an inventory reduction sale.

The faltering economy has inspired some to take action.

Don Johnston, a member of Precious Blood of Christ Church on Pawleys Island, started a “World of Work” networking group for adults who have lost their jobs.

Johnston, a recent retiree, spent more than 30 years with Manpower and specializes in employment counseling. In fall 2008, he heard about the sharp rise in unemployment in Horry and Georgetown counties, and talked to people who had been laid off.

He recalled a successful job networking group at a parish he and his wife attended while in Atlanta, and decided to start something similar at Precious Blood. The first meeting was held in December.

“With an employment networking group, we can teach how to search jobs on the internet, customize a resume, which fields are hiring,” Johnston said. “In this group they can also share with each other — give suggestions, talk about successes. I’ve found this kind of opportunity not only improves their knowledge about the world of work today, but enhances their confidence. It bolsters their spirit to have somebody to talk with, because this is a very depressing time.”

Johnston said five members of Precious Blood actively looking for work have attended the two meetings, and two have since found employment. Others who have attended are returning to the workforce because of the economy, or are preparing themselves for a possible layoff.

Renee Faiella was one of those people who lost her job in the financial industry in October and attended the World of Work meetings in December and January. She credits the program with helping her focus her job search and find new employment at a health services company.

“It felt good to know that our church was reaching out,” she said. “Don Johnston was a big help. He gave me some great tips, and I really feel one of the reasons I got called back by the company was his suggestion on how to handle the interview. He gave me some different strategies for the interview, and I was completely prepared for it.”

Johnston has also worked one-on-one with some of the attendees to help them with resumes or to give advice on specific issues.

“It’s surprising more churches don’t do this, because South Carolina really has always had some high unemployment numbers, especially when you get outside the high industrial areas like the Upstate or the white collar haven of Columbia,” Johnston said. “It’s disappointing we haven’t been able to reach out to more people because I know there are more people who could find value in a meeting like this.”

Father Patrick Tuttle, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Green ville, said layoffs have become a stark reality for an increasing number of people in his diverse congregation of about 240 households.

“We’ve had many, many executives and others come home from their jobs in the last three weeks and say they were laid off,” he said. “These are good people having to deal with this.”

Father Tuttle said St. Anthony parishioners have been affected by the closing of two Greenville-area Circuit City stores, a local Linens-N-Things, and layoffs at the nearby BMW plant and several local car dealerships.

As a result, the Franciscan priest said he and others are developing classified ads for use within the parish. The ads will be displayed on a poster in the church lobby. He said they may eventually migrate to the Internet.

“This will be a way to help both those looking for a job and people looking for workers,” Father Tuttle said.