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The `economic halo' effect of churches

Churches do more than save souls.

They also have what researchers are calling an "economic halo" that averages $1.5 million per congregation in Philadelphia, according to a recent report by Partners for Sacred Places and University of Pennsylvania professor Ram Cnaan.

"Our goal is to help churches tell their story, help them explain to their communities that they bring economic value, they bring a civic value, and that you don't have to be Catholic to care about the Catholic Church," said Bob Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places.

"Many of these institutions are struggling to keep their building together and to continue their good work, and they need their neighbors and the people they benefit to understand that they need some help sometimes," he said.

Jaeger spoke during a panel discussion Wednesday evening marking the release of a separate but related report on the economic heft of the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

That report, "How Catholic Places Serve Civic Purposes: The Archdiocese of Philadelphia's Economic 'Halo Effects,' " put the economic weight of the archdiocese and other Catholic entities in Southeastern Pennsylvania at $4.2 billion in fiscal 2015.

The figure includes archdiocesan programs ($400 million), parishes ($1.07 billion, mostly from parish schools), Catholic hospitals ($1.12 billion), Catholic higher-education institutions ($1.4 billion), and private Catholic schools ($212 million).

The report's author, Joseph P. Tierney, executive director of the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program at Penn and a resident senior fellow at the university's  Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society, tallied operating expenses for hospitals and universities.

To value Catholic elementary and high school education, he multiplied the number of students in the 2014-15 school year (68,927) by the average per-pupil cost for public schools in the five-county area of $18,451, then added a total of $4 million for four special-education schools.

Most economic-impact studies use a multiplier in an attempt to capture the spin-off effects of economic activity. Tierney did that only for the non-education component of the parishes, relying on the research by Cnaan and Partners for Sacred Places.

That study looked at 40 Philadelphia congregations, including six Catholic parishes, two of which have since closed. The average amount of direct spending was $437,093. Estimated spin-off, or "catalytic effects," averaged $739,988, for a total of $1.18 million per parish. Tierney applied that average to all 219 parishes in the archdiocese.

Tierney said his estimate -- which does not account for the fact that churches do not pay taxes -- is conservative because it does not include every Catholic entity that could be counted.

"I suspect we can double that once we complete a census of all these organizations," he said.