Las Vegas Sun

January 22, 2018

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Parishioners mix religion, gambling at Laughlin casino church


Steve Marcus

Father Charlie Urnick of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church poses on the casino floor following Mass at the Riverside Casino in Laughlin Sunday, Sept. 9. 2012. The church is the only Catholic church that holds weekly Mass in a casino, Urnick said.

Catholic Mass at the Riverside

Father Charlie Urnick, of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, conducts Mass at the Riverside Casino in Laughlin Sunday, Sept. 9. 2012. The church is the only Catholic church that holds weekly Mass in a casino, Urnick said. Launch slideshow »

Lights on the River

Laughlin casino lights are reflected in the Colorado River at sunset Sunday, Sept. 9. 2012. Launch slideshow »

The glowing marquee outside the box office showed six shirtless men with bronzed, well-oiled pecs and abs.

The "Australian Thunder from Down Under" all-male revue would be bumping and grinding later Sunday at Don’s Celebrity Theatre.

But right now, another star is ready to take over the main showroom at the Riverside Resort Hotel & Casino in Laughlin — the Rev. Charles Urnick.

“I’m on stage three times a weekend,” says the man known to his fans — more appropriately, his parishioners — as Father Charlie.

Wearing green vestments, the 60-something, white-haired, roundish administrator of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church wouldn’t be mistaken for one of the buff blokes from the outback.

But Father Charlie was still drawing a crowd to casino row in this gambling community about 90 miles south of Las Vegas, which features 11 casinos on the Nevada side of the Colorado River.

Close to 300 people were about to attend one of Urnick’s two Sunday morning Masses at the casino.

“I love what I do, and I love where I do it,” Urnick said as he prepared to hear confessions before Mass. “We’re the only Catholic church in the United States that has Mass in a casino.”

If you attend a service, you can buy a souvenir from the church’s gift table, which includes a St. John the Baptist casino chip. Edged in blue and white, the chip says, “Pray With Us! It’s A Sure Bet!”

To Urnick, celebrating Mass at the casino makes sense — both practically and biblically. “Jesus went where the people are. And when you’re in a casino town, this is where the people are," he said.

“People joke about you’re in a casino, you’re in Sin City,” he said. “But many of our people who sing or are ushers are blackjack dealers or they’re performers in one of the casinos or lounges.”

Sometimes celebrities who do shows in Laughlin are in the crowd, too. “I’ve had Larry Gatlin stop in and just start chatting with me. I’ve had Lynn Anderson sing with our choir,” Urnick said.

The Rat Pack is Back brings its tribute show from the Rio in Las Vegas to Laughlin from time to time, so “at least two Sundays a year I have Frank Sinatra in my congregation,” he said.

The parish started as a mission in 1992 in what is now the River Palms casino and moved to the Riverside in 1996. “They’re good to us, and we’re good to them. We’re bringing in a few thousand people a week to their casino,” said Urnick, who has been with the parish since 2008 and has a small church about five miles from Laughlin’s casino row.

There are about 500 families in the parish, “but thousands of snowbirds who come down to Laughlin in the winter from all over the world,” he said. During the height of tourist season in February, as many as 2,500 people attend the three weekend Masses — two Sunday and one Saturday afternoon.

Barbara Nicolson, of Sedona, Ariz., was staying at the casino with her husband, Robert, and attended service on Sunday. She said she likes being able to play video poker downstairs before heading upstairs for church.

“It is a little crazy. But I think it’s marvelous,” she said. “This priest is amazing.”

Mini Granados and her husband, Danny, live in Bullhead City and are regulars at Father Charlie’s services.

“From here we go to breakfast and gamble a little bit,” she said.

Also at church this week were Judy and Ron Laughlin, the son of Don Laughlin, the town’s founder and owner of the Riverside. The Laughlins said their children received their first communion and were confirmed at the casino church.

Clay Slieff, a doorman at the theater, said that often the Catholic Masses bring in more people than the marquee performers.

“They really pack them in,” he said.

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