Las Vegas Sun

April 22, 2019

Currently: 72° — Complete forecast

Viatorians celebrate 50 years in valley

The Clerics of St. Viator are celebrating their 50th anniversary of serving Nevada. Here are key accomplishments of the local Catholic priests of the Viatorian order as compiled from research of Marie Feeney, coordinator of the golden anniversary observance, and Las Vegas Sun archives:

1954: Bishop Gorman High School, the first Catholic high school in Southern Nevada, opens its doors Sept. 7 on Maryland Parkway. Viatorian priests are brought in to teach the 150 students. The Rev. Francis Williams is named the first principal.

The Rev. Thomas Fitzpatrick becomes founding pastor of the then-churchless St. Viator parish. On Oct. 21, St. Viator parish celebrates its first public Mass in a bank at Charleston Boulevard and Maryland Parkway.

1955: The original St. Viator Church is built at St. Louis and Eastern avenues, on the site of the former city dump. Settling of the landfill later led to structural problems and the church was torn down. The church moved to a storefront at Eastern Avenue and Charleston Boulevard, and Jaycees Park was built on the site of the former church.

1956: Bishop Gorman High becomes a four-year tuition school. There are 85 seniors in the first graduating class.

1961: The Rev. Richard Crowley, second pastor of St. Viator, asks Desert Inn operator Moe Dalitz for land on which to build what would become the Guardian Angel Cathedral on the Strip. Land adjacent to the old Desert Inn is donated. Through the 1950s and into the '60s Mass was celebrated on Sunday mornings at various Strip hotels, including the original Last Frontier.

1963: Guardian Angel Shrine opens Oct. 2 next to the Desert Inn and becomes the defacto center for St. Viator Parish.

Fifteen acres of Bureau of Land Management property at Flamingo Road and Eastern Avenue is purchased to build a permanent St. Viator Church, which opens two years later.

1966: St. Viator opens a school for 140 students in four grades. Today, nearly 700 students attend pre-kindergarten through eighth grade classes there.

1977: Bishop Norman McFarland of the Reno-Las Vegas Diocese designates the Guardian Angel Shrine as a co-cathedral of the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas. The first Mass at a newly constructed church building on the St. Viator site is celebrated on Nov. 16.

1994: Construction begins on a new church at the St. Viator site.

1995: The Reno-Las Vegas Diocese is divided into two Catholic dioceses, with Bishop Daniel Walsh named first bishop of the Las Vegas Diocese. He initiates a $1.3 million renovation of the Guardian Angel Cathedral.

The first Mass at the new St. Viator Church is celebrated on Sept. 2. Walsh celebrates the dedication Mass there on Oct. 22, a day following the Feast of St. Viator.

1998: Connie Gerber becomes the first woman principal of Gorman High and the 12th person to hold that post.

1999: The Rev. Richard Rinn, a former Gorman High principal and president, is appointed the ninth -- and current -- pastor of St. Viator Catholic Church.

2003: Bishop Gorman High, no longer under the direction of the Viatorians, announces plans to move to a 35-acre parcel off Hualapai Way near Russell Road. The new school is projected to cost between $35 million and $40 million and open in the fall of 2007.

2005: The Clerics of St. Viator observe 50 years of service in Nevada.

Having spent 60 years as a Catholic priest, the Rev. Edward Anderson, a former teacher, has well learned that you cannot judge a book by its cover, especially when it comes to stereotypes about Las Vegas.

"I like to say that the good that happens in Las Vegas stays here," said Anderson, 83, who was transferred to Las Vegas in 1966 to serve as Bishop Gorman High School's fifth principal. "The sad thing is that a lot of good that happens in Las Vegas often is hidden from the rest of the country."

Like many others, Anderson said he, too, had apprehensions about coming to what some call Sin City. But as a member of the Clerics of St. Viator he swore an oath of obedience and had to report here.

He's glad he did, having also served as pastor of St. Viator parish and rector of Guardian Angel Cathedral.

Anderson will join at least two dozen other Viatorian priests and brothers at two events this weekend celebrating the 50th anniversary of the order's service to Nevada.

A dinner is slated for 6 p.m. today at Palace Station. On Sunday, a special Mass will be celebrated at 2 p.m. at St. Viator Catholic Church, 2461 E. Flamingo Road. Bishop Joseph Pepe of the Las Vegas Diocese will preside. A reception will follow in the St. Viator Parish Center.

The 50th anniversary of the order's work in Las Vegas actually occurred last year, but the Viatorians waited, not wanting to detract from Bishop Gorman's golden anniversary.

"That is indicative of the Viatorian spirit," said parishioner Marie Feeney, coordinator of the celebration that honors the 105 Viatorians who have served in Nevada. "They just wanted a simple celebration to give thanks."

The Rev. Bill Haesaert, a 60-year-old associate pastor at St. Viator and a former high school Latin student of Anderson's from Illinois, said the event is not so much to honor the Viatorians but "to thank the many people who have supported us and participated in helping us run the school and the churches."

The Clerics of St. Viator were founded in the 19th century by the Rev. Louis Querbes, a French priest who sought to establish countryside parishes with schools run by highly educated and dedicated priests. The order is named for a fourth century French catechist-lector.

Anderson, Haesaert and the Rev. James Crilly, 76, also a former rector of Guardian Angel just off the Strip, say one challenge facing them and other Viatorian pastors and priests in the next 50 years is getting their parishioners more involved with the church community.

Haesaert said he had long struggled to find in Las Vegas the "continuity, tradition and longevity" he had in Illinois, where several generations attended the same neighborhood churches.

While such growing pains are still being addressed, that sense of community sometimes is found where some would least expect it -- in the heart of the gamblers' paradise on the Strip.

Crilly, who still celebrates Mass and hears confessions despite having officially retired, said two of every three parishioners at Guardian Angel, adjacent to Wynn Las Vegas, are tourists.

"We have a German couple that comes to Las Vegas every year and attends our services," he said. "One time I told them that we were having a funeral instead of the regular Mass. They said that was fine and they stayed. They and so many others feel that at the cathedral they are part of our community.

"So many tourists have told me that the highlight of their trip to Las Vegas is the services they attend at the cathedral."

Another challenge, the priests say, is getting parishioners to assist priests in steering the direction of the church.

"One of the difficulties in getting the lay people involved is that for so long they have been accustomed to priests making all of the decisions," said Crilly, who served 11 years in missions in South America.

"I told my parishioners, 'Here is what I think about a particular subject, now change my mind if you have a different opinion.' Sometimes they did."

While there are many inspiring stories of the Viatorians' history in Las Vegas, few are as stirring as the events surrounding the 1968 Bishop Gorman vs. Western High football game.

"Western beat us the year before by about 40 points and they were expected to beat us again by 40 points," said Anderson, who was principal at the time.

"I had hired coach Frank Nails that season and he asked me to speak at the pep rally. I am -- and was then -- 5-foot-3, 138 pounds, and I stood next to 6-foot-6, 240-pound linemen and scolded them, telling them if they hit a little harder we might win a few games."

That Friday night, Gorman trailed Western at the half, when Nails gave an inspirational speech, telling his boys that "the little guy who spoke to you at the pep rally had more guts than all of you put together." He implored the team not to let Father Anderson down.

The Gaels came out hitting hard and came from behind to upset Western. When the final gun sounded, the Gorman players rushed into the stands, picked up Anderson and carried him shoulder high across the field to the locker room.

"I felt like Jesus being lifted up," Anderson said.