Father Charles B. Urnick is an orthodox Catholic.
He’s just not an orthodox person.
Years ago, on a Sunday morning, as he drove away from his little Laughlin, Nevada, St. John the Baptist Catholic church, he saw thousands of people milling around the Riverside Casino. So, he packed up his church and moved it into the casino.
Now, after celebrating an 8 a.m. mass at the “official” church, he hustles across town and celebrates two Masses for, well, for the masses in the showroom of the Riverside.
I dropped by on a recent Sunday, expecting to see a few desperate souls and a smattering of folks from the local Latino community.
What I saw was more than 200 hale and hardy believers primed and ready for old-time religion.
And “Father Charlie,” as usual, was in fine spirits.
Originally from New Jersey, the Rev. Urnick had been a military chaplain and also a successful parish priest in the East. But as he closed in on retirement, he decided to move to Laughlin and finish out his ministry in a desert climate.
But he was born with too much spunk to just do “easy time.” The day he arrived in Laughlin he began hatching plans.
Since coming West, he’s written three books and is working on more.
And his penchant for off-kilter thinking and natural showmanship makes him a great fit for a casino town.
This Sunday, dressed in his green vestments for Easter, he quickly cranked up the music. Catholics aren’t known for being robust singers, but under Father Charlie’s watchful eye the congregation belted out “Amazing Grace” and “Shall We Gather at the River.” (The casino sits on the banks of the Colorado).
Cookies, crosses and trinkets stood ready and waiting for purchase on a table near the entrance. Souvenirs included Father Charlie’s calling card, a poker chip stamped with the words “Pray with us! It’s a sure bet!”
For Lent, Father Charlie said, he’d also be performing 3 a.m. masses. But as with everything he touches, he offered a twist. They would be “Tiger Masses.” Come to one Mass and you’d get the tail of a stuffed tiger. Come to three and you’d get the whole tiger.
As the service went on, the donation plate was passed and communion was given.
More hymns were sung.
There was a quick sermon about “not judging,” a plea to contribute to the upcoming “walk on broken glass” fundraiser and a pitch to help make the 18th-century Nevada priest Tomas Garces a Catholic saint. Then — sweating like a man at the end of a marathon — Father Charlie dashed to the door to personally greet every person in the hall.
As people left, the slot machines in the casino dinged and the rock music roared.2 comments on this story
And, like many visitors before me, I drove away wondering if Father Charlie had hit on an ingenious way to spread the gospel, or if he’d made everything a little too convenient. The Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor once said Catholics were constantly underestimating the cost of salvation. Maybe having Mass within an arm’s length of one-armed bandits was asking too little of people.
The notion will be debated time and again, I’m sure.
But on this day, I left feeling uplifted. And that seemed to be the point of Father Charlie’s whole slot machine ministry.
And I also left with a little token that looked like a $50 poker chip but was really a reminder to be humble and prayerful.
On this trip to Laughlin, I figured I'd done better than breaking even.
I’d come out ahead.