How Bingo Took Over Catholic Parish Halls

Bingo arose in the U.S. during the Great Depression. By 1934, Americans were organizing 10,000 Bingo games a week.

Edwin Torres, CC BY 2.0
Edwin Torres, CC BY 2.0 (photo: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0)

Is there any other single word that both expresses exuberant success and one that is closely associated with Catholicism as “Bingo?”

What a game! It’s rare to come across any game that interests both young and old alike.

I recall sitting next to my parents in the basement of our Manhattan church playing Bingo on Friday nights. I especially recall the first time my parents trusted me with my own Bingo card.

Though Bingo is closely associated in the public imagination with Catholicism, the game’s origins are by far more interfaith and ecumenical.

I don’t have to explain the whys and wherefores of the game to cradle Catholics, but for our newly arrived brothers and sisters, allow me to illuminate you.

Bingo is a game of chance in which players match 24 numbers printed on small cards in a 5×5 matrix cards (including a FREE square in the middle which is considered automatically filled) with random numbers selected from one to 75. Each of the five columns of numbers printed on the card are labeled with the letters B, I, N, G and O. This facilitates identifying the called-out numbers.

I had the unique experience of actually introducing the game to an entire school when I volunteered as a lay missionary in Burma. The children had never heard of the game and I needed a fun way to introduce numbers in my ESL class so I had a friend mail me a Bingo set―with a cage, after all, because if we don’t keep tradition alive, a little part of us dies. Now the kids can’t get enough of the game.

Typical. What child wouldn’t want to play a game during school time?

In a month, my students were pronouncing English cardinal numbers perfectly.

One day, my kids wanted to play the game but we had misplaced the cage. So as to not waste time, I pulled up a Bingo number generator on my cellphone and called out the numbers using it.

My kids were less than impressed. They wanted the cage back.

An early version of this game was created in Italy called Il Giuoco del Lotto d'Italia. (“The Italian Lottery Game”) around 1530. French and German versions developed later in the 19th century.

In the early 1920s, Hugh J. Ward created a version of the game which he called “Beano.” It became popular at carnivals in the Pittsburgh and the Western Pennsylvania area. He copyrighted it and published a rule book for it in 1933.

But the game was popularized and commercialized by Edwin Lowe, a New York toy salesman and the son of Jewish Polish immigrants. He came across the game being played in Atlanta in December 1929. Lowe took the idea home with him and produced two versions — a 12-card set for $1 and a $2 set with 24 cards.

This is where the game got interesting — and Catholic. Several months after the game hit the market, Lowe was approached by an unnamed Catholic priest from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, who had seized upon the game thinking it the solution to his problem of financing the parish school. He bought several sets of the game and invited his parishioners to play the game. But as each set had multiple copies of the same cards, Father was saddled with handing out a lot of prizes each time Bingo! was called.

So he approached Lowe. The manufacturer instantly saw the great possibilities of Bingo being used as a fundraiser, but to make it possible, a great many more cards with unique combinations of numbers would have to be created to make it feasible.

Lowe approached Columbia University mathematician Carl Leffler, asking him to create unique, non-repeating numbered Bingo cards. By 1930, Leffler was printing 6,000 different Bingo cards.

Lowe also developed, produced and marketed the game Yahtzee. His company was ultimately sold to Milton Bradley in 1973 for $26 million.

(Author’s Note: For those who are interested, mathematically-speaking there are exactly 552,446,474,061,128,648,601,600,000 possible Bingo card combinations.)

The priest from Wilkes-Barre saved his parish school and spread the good news about Bingo to a Knights of Columbus Hall in Utica, New York, which was also saved.

And there was much rejoicing in the village.

By 1934, Americans were organizing 10,000 Bingo games a week. Bingo soon became as American as baseball, mom and apple pie.

However, not every Catholic was keen-o on Bing-o, labeling the fundraising mechanism as a game of chance that had no place in a house of God. Among these party poopers was New York’s mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, who feared that criminals would get involved in the game and turn it into a racket. The mayor ordered a temporary Bingo ban in 1938. A few years later, the New York State Legislature passed a law that restricted Bingo to churches and synagogues as long as the proceeds went toward a charitable cause.

In 1942, the Archdiocese of New York put a halt to all Bingo games within its borders. The law was rescinded a few years later when cooler, more fun-loving heads prevailed.

But though it has a long association with Catholicism, synagogues and other Christian churches often held a weekly Bingo game to supplement their dues and collections.

In this regard, Bingo is a truly American game — or, at least, a truly Americanized game.

Some contemporary people might think Bingo old-fashioned and déclassé, but they don’t know what they’re talking about.