Chips for the Poor and Priests of Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS—If you are in Las Vegas and need to speak with a priest, just hang around any casino cage where the players cash in their winning chips. There, a few times a week, a priest will invariably appear in black suit and clerical collar. He will be holding a bag or a box in which gamblers have deposited chips, the coin of the local realm, worth anywhere from $1 to $1,000.

“The priest at the casino cage — It's legendary in Las Vegas,” said Keith Copher, chief enforcement officer for the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

Despite all appearances, the priests aren't compulsive gamblers, nor are they likely to be on a God-given run of luck at the craps table. Rather, they are usually there to cash in what was left in the collection basket and poor box at Guardian Angel Cathedral or one of the city's other churches.

Like everything else in Las Vegas, the city's religious community benefits indirectly from the gaming industry for much of its cash flow. Because most who attend the cathedral are visitors, envelope donations and parishioner tithing are rare. The donated gambling chips, however, amount to substantial support.

“Recently, someone left three $1,000 tokens in the offering plate,” said the cathedral's rector, Father James F. Crilly. “Sometimes I personally go around to cash them in, and sometimes it is one of the other priests. We get to know most of the people working in the casino cages, and they get to know us.”

Father Crilly said the donations of gaming chips has become a touchy subject with casino management and the Nevada Gaming Commission. “In just the past year, it has become a very controversial issue,” he said.

For years, a sign inside the cathedral explained how gaming chips may be left in the offering plate. Recently, the sign was taken down and there's no official mention of the practice.

“It is against federal law to spend gaming chips anywhere outside of the casino that issued them,” said the Gaming Control Board's Copher. “Basically, if you use a chip for anything outside of the casino — even as a donation to a church — then it's being used as a form of alternative currency that competes with the federal dollar. The Federal Reserve takes that very seriously.”

The issue was raised when a famous Las Vegas casino, Binion's Horseshoe, suspected that counterfeit chips were in circulation.

“It's typical for regular poker players to just hold on to their chips, and then bring them back into the casino the next time they play,” Copher said. “While the counterfeit investigation was under way, Binion's stopped cashing chips of $500 or more,” from anyone who had not spent time at the casino's tables.

One man, desperate for cash, was turned away when he tried to exchange a few $1,000 poker chips. So he asked a Protestant minister who was sporting a white collar to cash in the chips for him. It didn't work.

“That's when contributions of gaming chips suddenly became [an] issue,” said Father Crilly, who added that he doesn't expect to be visited by the G-men or see the cathedral staked out by Treasury agents even though the practice of contributing chips continues as before.

“We now try to keep a low profile. We don't do anything to solicit it,” said the priest. That's more than enough for Copher and the Gaming Board. “The churches have been very good recently about not encouraging this practice,” he said. “And that's really all we can ask. We're not going to start arresting priests at the gaming cage because someone dropped some chips into the plate. It wouldn't be worth our time.”

Ministry to the Casino-Goers

The cathedral, built in 1963, sits right on the Las Vegas strip. It is dwarfed on all sides by massive casino hotels and their bright, flashing lights. It draws about 200 Catholics to each daily Mass, and visitors line up outside three confessionals before each service.

“Confession is the most important ministry we offer here,” said Father Crilly. He suspects the cathedral staff hears more confessions than nearly any Catholic church in the United States.

“People like to confess here because they are visiting,” and are not known to the local priests, said Father Crilly. “Often they will tell me they are embarrassed to confess at home, because they know the priest. Every now and then I will hear something startling, like someone being with a prostitute, but that's not the bulk of it.”

People also like to get married in Vegas and Catholics are no different, said Father Crilly. “I just recently did a wedding for a couple from Kenya, and they flew their entire family here,” the priest reported. “Another couple recently came here from Ireland, along with 150 guests.”

Father Crilly said he requires a letter from the couple's pastor before performing a marriage. “I get Catholics in here who think we can just operate like the commercial wedding chapels,” he added. “I have to explain to them we are not in that business, and that they have to go through the full process, even though this is Las Vegas.”

Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.

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