The ambush of Our lady of the lottery

Columnist : Albert Paschall

There was one lesson I learned well growing up attending Catholic schools in the ‘60s: salesmanship.  I always had something to sell.  Candy, pizzas, Christmas decorations or lottery tickets.  Well not exactly lottery tickets they were really chances for 50/50 drawings, baskets of cheer, knitted blankets and other stuff that could be chanced off to raise a few bucks for The Nuns.  At the pittance they were paid for teaching in the parish school nobody begrudged a buck or two to buy a few extras for The Sisters.  They were a bargain earning about 10% of what their public school counter parts did.  If the church needed a new furnace or station wagon a well run game would pay the bill.  Non-Catholics had to think there was an Our Lady of the Lottery and Saint Bingo because their names hung on most parish halls and schools.

In the ‘60s playing a number was a little nefarious.  Barbers, bartenders, grocers even the milk delivery guy sold numbers under the counter.  Pennsylvania made it a lot easier in the ‘70s by introducing the daily lottery.  This service provided to the bookies in the Commonwealth by the State Lottery Commission got rid of a lot of cumbersome and illegal paperwork.  Since then you can bet the number that’s going to be on TV every night.  The odds from the bookies are far better than the state lottery and the payoff bigger and probably quicker.  This Pennsylvania technological initiative gave all kinds of civic, charitable and social causes new ideas about fundraising that have been going on since Moses climbed the mountain and didn’t come down with a commandment that said: “thou shalt not gamble.”

Until a month ago when an enterprising reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer’s suburban farm team discovered this practice and ran a startling expose: “Parish moneymakers lack blessing of the law!”

One parish that was singled out happened to have a priest that was actually a certified public accountant.  Father missed his calling.  He should be running the Pennsylvania Lottery Commission because dollar for dollar it looks like he paid off and profited by about twice as much as the state does.  His games raised $180,000 enough to send 12 kids to public schools in Philadelphia for a year at about a 75% higher return with far better odds of winning than players of the state’s Cash 5 or Big 6 games ever get.

But since the prizes were over $500 they ran afoul of Pennsylvania’s Games Of Small Chance Law, read that: no competition for the state lottery, forcing Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, Bishop of the Philadelphia Archdiocese probably as he gagged over his morning paper to call off the gambling.  Even though City, State and Federal authorities said they never had a complaint about the penny-ante games.  ‘Never had a complaint’ from all of those bureaucracies is the wink and nod response that said the agencies had better things to do than to chase grown up altar boys trying to move baskets of cheer to pay for school books.

     But chance is part of the parochial school system.  Every chance they’ve ever had in Pennsylvania for government support, from textbooks to vouchers, has come up a loser on the state’s political wheel of fortune.  Yet parents continue to pay Catholic school tuition while still paying public school taxes to give their kids a far better chance at an education than they’ll get in the city’s public schools.

     A former Philadelphia Inquirer Pulitzer prize winning journalist once described the paper’s suburban reporting as ‘drive-by’ journalism.  That’s precisely what happened to Our Lady of the Lottery and St. Bingo.  They were ambushed by a cheap headline that killed millions in revenue for these schools.

     However the Catholic Schools have been financially scraping for years turning out far superior education in Philadelphia than the city or state can.  Bevilacqua seems a patient man who will somehow work the cash flow problem through.  Taxpayers all over the state better pray that he does.  Someday if he doesn’t and the Catholic schools close more than 100,000 students get dumped into the Philadelphia public schools alone.  Just for openers Pennsylvania’s taxpayers will have to ante up $750 million to pick up that tab and undoubtedly then there will be public hell to pay on every front page in the state.