Monday, June 07, 2010

Pass the basket: just remember that you’re supposed to be putting in, not taking out

One of the many jobs I had along the way was counting the collection money at church, which I did every Sunday throughout high school.

I say “job”, even though we weren’t paid very much. I think by my senior year, we were making about $3 for about 5 - 6 hours of work – even in those long-gone days, this was substantially under minimum wage. But the job had a lot of side benefits, most notably a number of my friends were in the “counting house” with me – all gabbing away. Plus, in addition to getting paid, we got breakfast – either at the White House Restaurant in Webster Square, or with junk food bought at Cumberland Farms. 

Other than having to get up for the 6:30 a.m. Mass so we could be at our post when the 7 a.m. take came in, the job was pretty easy-peasy. For one thing, there was a lot of downtime between when the ushers delivered the collection proceeds, and when we finished processing them. In nice weather, we could sit out on the porch in rocking chairs. In not so nice weather, we could watch TV (not that there was much on on a Sunday morning in those b&w days).  Or – if all the priests, plus the housekeeper were away – we could nose around in the rectory –someone keeping watch so we wouldn’t get nabbed. (We didn’t do this very often: it was just too scary.)

Mid-way through my career as a counter, the pastor of our church died. The priest who replaced him brought with him two elderly spinster sisters – Rose and Ida – as his housekeepers. Rose and Ida were pack rats, and they took over our counting room with boxes full of floor to ceiling junk that would have done the Collyer brothers proud.

Although we were relegated to a smaller ante-room in which to do our work, we could poke around the stacks of Rose and Ida junk, which included all kinds of ancient gifts. My favorite was cartons full of what appeared to be 20 year old, still-in-cellophane, holiday boxes of chocolates.

The actual task of counting was hardly onerous. We opened the kiddy envelopes, using a paper cutter; shook out the coins; and discarded the little envies. We kept the fact that kids donations weren’t recorded from the kiddies – why not let them think that Sister Superior knew whether they’d put an empty envelope in the collection basket, rather than spending the dime on penny candy at Carrera’s Spa.

For the adult envelopes, we opened them up, wrote down the donation amount (this was pretty much all cash), and sorted the envelopes by number. The actual transcription of who-gave-what was left to a pair of elderly spinster sisters (not Rose and Ida), who matched the numbers printed on the envelopes to the names or parishioners that they kept in their secret books.

At the end of the day, we put the bills, sorted by denomination, in packs of twenty-five; threw all the change in the coin counter; and toted everything up.

At some point, the younger, “cool” priest would put in an appearance, joke around with us, and raffle off the Kennedy half-dollars that showed up. Even if the younger, “cool” priest didn’t drop by, I will confess that we began to raffle off the Kennedy half-dollars, anyway, which usually added $.50 to our take-home. (We stopped doing this when they raised our wages to $3, by the way. At first when I had the job, we were paid $1.00 for those 5-6 hours. Way worse than babysitting (even when your regular babysitting job was 7 boys), which paid $.50 hour).

Raffling off those Kennedy halfs was about as dishonest as it got, and I can honestly say that it wouldn’t have occurred to me in a billion years to pocket any of the collection money.

I hadn’t thought about that job in years. Then I read an article in The Boston Globe about a local woman, Donna Rood (surely not to be confused with Donna Reed), who was just busted for skimming over $100K from the collections at St. Mary Magdalen in Tyngsboro over the past few years.

St. Mary Magdalen! Could there have been a better church name -  other than St. Dismas, the Good Thief – for one involved in a crime? Of course, this was a crime of the pocketbook, not the flesh. Still…

Anyway, Ms. Rood was in charge of counting the collections at St. MM from 2003 until midway through last year.  By the parish reckoning, she light-fingered about $16K a year, or about $300 a week. That’s a lot of Kennedy half dollars.

The theft was uncovered after a priest got to wondering why, on the Sundays when he did the counting, the church cleared a lot more.

Ms. Rood – who is 47 – is now facing arraignment. Not to mention the colossal humiliation of being found to have cadged donation money from a church. Oh, the infamy!

My high school – Notre Dame Academy in Worcester – has a sister school in Tyngsboro.

My advice to the folks at St. Mary Magdalen is that they get a handful of NDA girls from their parish to do the counting for them.

No, it’s not a glamorous, high-paying, career-enhancing job. But my guess is that teenage girls still wouldn’t mind sitting around gossiping and eating M&M for a few hours on Sunday morning, counting the weekend’s take.

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