Sin City’s Secret: Catholicism Is Booming

Las Vegas is among the largest, fastest-growing and most diverse dioceses in the United States.

(photo: Shutterstock)

LAS VEGAS — Famous for its nightlife scene and known as the gambling capital of the United States, perhaps the city of Las Vegas has earned its worldwide title of “Sin City.”

But among the nearly 75 casinos, countless nightclubs and other entertainment venues in town, another Las Vegas stronghold is growing at a record pace.

With more than 2 million residents, nearly 700,000 Catholics and an estimated 40 million tourists visiting Las Vegas each year, the 19-year-old Diocese of Las Vegas faces the challenge of fixing the looming problem of overcrowded churches and Catholic schools. And, according to prominent diocesan clergy, the diocese is moving fast to address the challenge.

Less than two decades old, the Diocese of Las Vegas was established, on March 21, 1995, by St. John Paul II. Originally a part of the Diocese of Reno, Las Vegas remains just the second diocese in the entire state of Nevada.

“We have a special devotion to John Paul II, and especially now, because he’s a saint,” Bishop Joseph Pepe, shepherd of the Diocese of Las Vegas since 2001, told the Register. “We want to replicate his openness and humility to people from around the world.”

Though Nevada was the last of the continental 48 states to establish its own diocese, between 85% and 95% of the state’s Catholics live in the Diocese of Las Vegas. The city’s Catholic roots extend as far back as 1908, when its oldest Church, St. Joan of Arc, was built for a town of just 700 people — only 70 of whom were Catholic.

“When it was founded, Las Vegas was a railroad town,” explained Father Timothy Wehn, a 47-year resident of Las Vegas and pastor of the diocese’s Guardian Angel Cathedral, “and one of the Catholics living there had purchased a plot of land specifically for a church.”

Though Joan of Arc hadn’t yet been canonized in 1908, Bishop Lawrence Scanlan of Salt Lake City — the diocese overseeing Las Vegas at the time — insisted the church be named for her. Among the bishop’s reasons for the name was Las Vegas’ blistering summer temperatures.

“He didn’t care that she hadn’t been canonized,” Father Wehn laughed. “His response was: ‘It’s going to be Joan of Arc, because when I was riding a horse through there in July, it felt like I was being burnt at the stake!’”


Rapid Expansion

Since Bishop Scanlan got his way more than 100 years ago, 37 other parishes have opened their doors to form today’s Diocese of Las Vegas. Seven have opened since Bishop Pepe took over the diocese 13 years ago.

And as the overall population in Las Vegas has nearly tripled, from 250,000 to roughly 640,000, since its diocese was founded, so has the number of Catholics living in the city.

According to Bishop Pepe, the rapid expansion of construction and casino businesses has brought a new wave of Catholics to work in Sin City. From Mexican, Cuban and Central-American-born Hispanics to Americans from the East Coast and California, people looking to relocate have been drawn by the area’s pleasant climate and employment opportunities, Bishop Pepe said.

“The taxation is much cheaper here, too,” he added.

The diocese now covers more than 40,000 square miles and is one of the United States’ 35 largest dioceses by Catholic population.

“When people think of Las Vegas, they don’t realize there are Christians here,” Father Marc Howes, pastor of St. Joseph, Husband of Mary Church, told the Register. “But, in reality, we have a large population of devout and faithful people.”

“Even the Pope [Francis] was surprised,” Bishop Pepe added. “When I first met him, and they told him I was from Las Vegas, he laughed.”


Packed Parishes

But while a single Catholic church in major American cities can usually serve anywhere from 500 to 5,000 total parishioners, Bishop Pepe said that most parishes in Las Vegas have between 7,000 to 8,000 registered families. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the diocese’s largest parish, has more than 11,000 registered families.

“A lot of our Sunday Masses have people celebrating from the parking lots,” he said.

Father Wehn estimates that for every registered family in the Diocese of Las Vegas, an additional two families attend Mass without ever registering with a parish.

“If you’re a priest, the chance you have of getting to know even 1% of your parishioners and remember faces is slim,” he said.

The diocese is working to address the challenges posed by this demographic surge. With the expansion of three new churches set for the end of 2016, the parishes of St. Anthony of Padua, St. Francis of Assisi and Holy Spirit will provide room for an additional 10,000 weekly Massgoers — giving fellow diocesan churches a much-needed break.

According to Bishop Pepe, the diocese’s goal is to build until parishes are down to about 3,000 families per church.

The key challenge is financial: While costs for the average parish center run anywhere from $2.8 to $2.9 million, churches themselves cost between $19 to $20 million, the Las Vegas bishop noted.

“With all the casinos and hotels, the price is high on both the contractors and the materials they use,” he said, “and it affects us.”

Though the Diocese of Las Vegas runs its fundraising on a parish level, Bishop Pepe said the housing-market crash of 2008 hurt its ability to raise money to buy property.

As things have picked up economically, he has hope for the future.

In addition to opening three churches in the next two years, the diocese owns an undeveloped piece of land in south Las Vegas. Bishop Pepe says the only thing holding him back from developing a fourth church is finding a pastor to lead its fundraising campaign. He expects the problem should be solved within the next year.

“We’re just praying for someone to step in there,” he said.


Unique Diversity

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the diocese is its attention to diversity, said Bishop Pepe, with Sunday Masses offered in Spanish, French, Tagalog, Polish, Vietnamese and Korean, as well as Latin.

After English, Spanish is by far the diocese’s second most-spoken language, he said.

“The Mexicans here are very, very Catholic.”

“People from all over the world come here to do more than just gamble,” added Father Richard Philiposki, pastor at St. Joan of Arc Parish on the Las Vegas Strip. “We try to serve both tourists and locals so they feel at home.”

Father Philiposki said the diocese also serves large Filipino and Hawaiian populations. He attributes the growth of both groups to greater employment opportunities in the area.

“They often call Las Vegas the ninth Hawaiian island,” he joked.

Just as most Vegas casinos and nightclubs welcome customers every day, so priests at St. Joan of Arc also offer the sacrament of reconciliation Sunday through Saturday, in addition to daily Mass.

“There’s a saying that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” Father Philiposki said, “and we try to emphasize that your sins need to stay in Vegas as well, by confession before you go back home.”

But beyond the 40 million-plus tourists who visit Las Vegas each year, at least 100,000 of Clark County’s 2 million residents suffer from problem gambling and addiction, according to the Nevada Council of Problem Gambling.

Though gambling and alcoholism ministries vary by church, Bishop Pepe says diocesan priests offer counseling and also refer struggling Catholics to secular organizations like Gamblers Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous for help.

“Priests can counsel them, pray with them and offer them reconciliation,” he added, “but also help them find groups that specialize in overcoming their addictions.”

In Las Vegas alone, over 80 Gamblers Anonymous groups meet weekly, more than any other city in the country.


Reaching Out

While Bishop Pepe acknowledges the city at large has a gambling issue, he says a surprisingly large percentage of Catholics in his diocese are involved in outreach ministries — especially in assisting the poor and homeless — that shine the light of Christ in Sin City.

“I thank God every night on my knees that there are so many people involved in their parishes, both in the extraordinary ministry of the Eucharist, visiting the sick and in outreach to people in need. It speaks to the strength of Catholicism here in Las Vegas and God’s real presence in our city.”

Chris Kudialis writes from Las Vegas.