Catholic Community responds to casino closings

Father John Vignone, pastor of the Church of St. Katharine Drexel in Egg Harbor Township, participates in a recent rally in support of Atlantic City casino workers in danger of losing their jobs.

Father John Vignone, pastor of the Church of St. Katharine Drexel in Egg Harbor Township, participates in a recent rally in support of Atlantic City casino workers in danger of losing their jobs.

Freezing temperatures did not prevent more than a thousand people from gathering on the Atlantic City boardwalk on Nov. 19, in front of the Trump Taj Mahal, the casino that could be the next casualty in a city that has already seen four casinos close this year, taking with them over 8,000 of the city’s jobs.

Workers marched to express their anger at investor Carl Icahn, who offered to save the casino in September, provided it received tax concessions from the city and broke its labor contract with union workers. He won his case in bankruptcy court in October and the Taj Mahal’s union workers lost their health care package and pension plan.

Alfred Kare, a parishioner at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Galloway, is a food server at the Taj Mahal and has worked at the casino for 18 years. He said he raised his family of four children on the benefits provided by the job.

“I’m not going to stand for my children getting hurt by this,” Kare said. “How many more families need to be hurt? Every single worker across America should be watching this fight.”

“How could somebody do this to somebody at the holidays?” said Valerie McMorris, a 24-year-old employee of the Taj Mahal. “Right now I’m deciding, should I save for a Christmas gift for my son or should I be more concerned with worrying about how to feed him?”

Among the marchers was Father John Vignone, pastor of the Church of St. Katharine Drexel in Egg Harbor Township. Before marching the length of the boardwalk with workers, ending at the Trump Plaza, Father Vignone offered the opening prayer.

“I’m here as a sign of encouragement for the people who need and have asked for a Catholic presence,” Father Vignone said. “These workers are where our parishes are.”

He walked alongside one of his parishioners, Donna DeCaprio, treasurer of Unite Here, Local 54, the casino workers union that organized the protest. When asked what a priest’s presence at the rally meant to workers, DeCaprio was at first overcome with emotion.

“The majority of our members are Catholic,” DeCaprio said. Seeing a priest here “is going to make them very, very proud.”

Union leaders estimate that more than half of the union’s membership is Catholic. In a recent meeting with union president Bob McDevitt, 12 of the region’s parishes were represented to discuss ways Catholic clergy could be a presence to union workers. Father Vignone is heading efforts to make clergy support more visible.

Since the announcement in September of its bankruptcy, the Taj Mahal’s closing date has been pushed back again and again. The latest is Dec. 20, and in anticipation the casino has closed one of its hotel towers and stopped issuing credit.

Yet, the state Legislature is even now working on passing a bill that could provide Icahn’s demanded tax relief and purportedly keep the Taj Mahal from closing.

In the meantime, another 3,000 casino jobs hang in the balance, along with, for union workers in particular, their health care and other benefits.

“It’s been a roller coaster. We’re going to stay open, we’re going to close, we’re going to stay open. You don’t know what the future holds,” McMorris said.

For the 8,000 that have already faced unemployment, the Catholic community in the region is responding in various ways.

Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Camden formed a casino crisis team, headed by intensive case manager Jeanetta Warren. Its hotline for those affected by the closings has served at least 65 callers through direct assistance and by connecting them to other agencies providing help.

“Right now we’re seeing a lot of need for rent and utilities assistance,” Warren said. “But it’s just the tip of the iceberg. When people’s unemployment benefits run out after Christmas the call volume is going to majorly increase.”

The agency’s regional office in Atlantic City has seen increased traffic as a distribution site for the Food Bank of New Jersey’s southern branch and as a walk-in center for those seeking one-time rent or utilities assistance

“There’s been a definite increase in demand. I think families are struggling. Where two people in a family were working, now maybe one person is working. People are not giving as frequently as they used to. A lot of people, too, who are not technically unemployed are still definitely underemployed,” said Nora Kennedy, a Catholic Charities caseworker who runs the food pantry for the Atlantic City-based site.

The St. Vincent DePaul Societies in the region are working to come together to provide a large-scale response to the needs of families affected by the closings. The Padre Pio Cape-Atlantic District of the society recently held a meeting of conference leaders to determine their unified response.

“The people that are losing their jobs in Atlantic City, they live in Egg Harbor Township, they live in Absecon, they live in Somers Point. All of these places are affected,” said Candice Brody, president of the Church of St. Katharine Drexel’s St. Vincent DePaul Society conference in Egg Harbor Township.

Catholic schools in the region are providing tuition assistance to families who may be affected. Our Lady Star of the Sea School in Atlantic City has been able to provide tuition assistance to every family that has come requesting their child’s transfer due to financial hardship caused by the closings.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Absecon started a sponsor-a-student program this year to benefit students of Holy Spirit High School in the same town, led by Father Perry Cherubini, pastor of the church and president of the high school.

Parishes are also responding at a local level. In Brigantine, St. Thomas Parish participates in a multi-denominational group called the True Spirit Coalition of Brigantine. For 30 years, the three largest congregations — Catholic, Jewish and Presbyterian — on the island, together with many other clubs, organizations and business groups come together to provide assistance to needy families in the community.

“This next closing could be very hard on Brigantine. A lot of children on the island have parents who work at the Taj. It affects every level: the stores, the beach shops, all the gift shops; it affects the whole town,” said Father Bill Vandegrift, pastor of St. Thomas Parish. “We’re still working on the Sandy storm. Many people don’t realize just how bad it was.”

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