1973-1974 Oil Crisis

Reverend Francis Fitzmaurice

          The 1970s were not kind to our parish. Families left for the suburbs as part of a national trend, and the controversial Venturi modernization of the sanctuary – needed for the equally controversial New Mass of Vatican II – became a source of division among those that remained.  Monsignor Mitchell was unwell. Then world events piled on one more challenge. The Philadelphia Inquirer interviewed Parish Administrator Father Fitzmaurice, (who would officially be named 8th pastor in 1976) in March 1974, during the October 1973- March 1974 Oil Embargo (Arab states ban on oil trade) – shining a cautionary light into long-reaching shadows of global politics:

          “Escalation of fuel oil prices is making life tougher for inner city pastors and congregations…At Saint Francis de Sales, 47th St and Springfield Ave. in West Philadelphia, oil prices have more than doubled in the last year and are still climbing. As a result, classrooms in this school have become cooler, hallways in the rectory have become darker, and crowds at mass sometimes shiver as they listen to the homily (not because of its content!). Although no programs have been cut back yet, the pastor and parishioners are engaged in a ‘backbreaking struggle to make ends meet,’ the pastor, the Rev. Francis J.Fitzmaurice admitted…”

          The paper reported “Some pastors turned bitter, castigating oil company executives and the government in their resentment over the shortage of oil, which they contend was a conspiracy to drive prices up. They said it was ‘theft.’ Many of them got together to form CHOPP – Clergy and Householders Opposed to Petroleum Profiteering – last month to get a  rollback of oil prices to November 1973 levels. Monsignor Frederick J Moors, pastor of Saint Cecilia’s at 535 Rhawn St, said the clergyman were angry because the ‘basic issue is a moral one.’ It is wrong for oil companies to make ‘excessive profits’ from the sale of ‘necessities like oil…Besides, it impedes the charitable work of the church.’”

          “But for clergymen like Father Fitzmaurice, the soft spoken priest in his mid 50s who became pastor at Saint Francis last September, oil prices are just another worry on a list of insolvable difficulties associated with changing neighborhoods — declining church attendance and contributions, rising crime statistics, fear, deficits. A rollback of oil prices would have been welcome, he admitted, but it wouldn’t have put the budget in the black. The deficit last year, Father Fitzmaurice said, was $65,000 and to balance the budget, $48,000 had to come out of parish savings. If the deficit continues this year, there is not enough left in the treasury to cover it. Last winter, the parish spent $14,024 for 100,834 gallons of oil to heat the church, school, rectory and convent. This winter, the church has so far spent $16,647, and it has used only 58,524 gallons of fuel. By April, it may have to come up with another $4000 for heat, the priest said. Even before the winter began, the tuition for the Parish School increased and the pastor said he had gone begging, asking friends and parishioners to give more. It is a great strain, he said.”

          “The parish, formed in 1890, was once affluent, with Catholics from 5,000 households contributing more than the church needed to balance the budget. But the makeup of the parish has slowly changed. Now there are fewer than 1,300 families left in the parish and the school built for 1,500 children, has only 619, the lowest number in 50 years, Father Fitzmaurice said.”

          The Inquirer noted “The problems, compounded by fuel costs at Saint Francis, could be told over and over throughout the city” and not just for Catholics: “For example, eleven of the 22 churches in the Center City, Lutheran parish, are supported by mission funds from the Lutheran Church in America. The LCA reduced that support by $40,000…this year…” And Catholic News Service reported interfaith CHOPP groups of churches and synagogues forming across the country, uniting in concern over crippling energy costs.

          President Nixon would resign just a few months later due to Watergate. President Ford would take on a thankless task of trying to stabilize the country – in an age that Charles Dickens might have characterized “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…in short, the period was so far like the present period…” And our parish? Philadelphia loves an underdog. At the end of the Vietnam War, an influx of refugees galvanized a new sense of purpose and we pulled through.

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