LAUGHLIN, NEVADA- As Sunday’s mass ends, the priest says to his parishioners:
“Don’t forget to visit the bar on your way out!”
No, he’s not encouraging them to get drunk after church.
Father Charlie Urnick says this because he’s giving mass inside of Riverside casino in Laughlin, Nevada.
The bar he’s referring to is a table-bar that casino employees use as a bar to sell drinks at other (non-church related) events. But just before, during, and right after mass, it’s used to sell candles, medals, books, and other religious items.
Along with those, church-goers can find casino chips. While Father Charlie gladly accepts casino chips in the donation bin (as well as slot machine receipts), that’s not the type he sells at the table. He designed special chips as a souvenir to visitors and as a fundraiser for the church.
On one side of the chip is a photo of Riverside casino with mass hours listed. On the other, it reads:
“Pray with us. It’s a sure bet.”
I had the chance to talk with Father Charlie on the phone. It was a joy talking to him; his kindness leaked through the line and his laughter is incredibly contagious. I took a lot away from our conversation, but the biggest thing was his heart for God, his community, veterans, and first responders.
Riverside casino houses Don’s Celebrity Theater, which is transformed into a church setting on the weekends. Sitting in folding chairs face to face with visitors, Father Charlie hears confessions in the hallway behind the theater and prays with people.
Father Charlie also holds mass at his home church, St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, which is 5 miles away from the casino.
Riverside casino was a temporary home for St. John the Baptist Church starting in 1992. The parish didn’t have a home building, so they used the theater inside the casino. Around 2003 the church had their own building, but Father John McShane, who conducted mass at the time, wanted to keep the relationship going with the casino.
And so, they continued offering weekend mass inside Riverside.
In 2008, Father Charlie relocated to Laughlin and was thrilled to take over the casino services.
Father Charlie said:
“The pope says priests should be where the people are. There are 11 casinos in Laughlin, so this is where we have taken our services. And to those who might say that God could not possibly be here, I say He is.”
Father Charlie is the only known priest in the country that holds mass regularly and permanently inside a casino. He says it’s a regular part of his ministry and he has no plans to stop.
Father Charlie says that his masses have the most attendance at the casino. His church seats about 300, but the theater in Riverside seats 800. And sometimes, he says, the theater reaches just about full capacity. He estimates the average attendance is 500-600 people.
The priest says he doesn’t care which service people come to, as long as they get to church. And, he says, once the casino theater doors are closed, it’s a church.
Happily, Father Charlie said he hasn’t really experienced any outright criticism for bringing Orthodox Catholic mass into a casino, but he’s definitely been met with surprise. He tells people to just come and see for themselves. It’s a regular, full-service catholic mass, just a different setting.
Sometimes the backdrop of mass is interesting, as they can’t move the settings or large props that are there for other events taking place during the weekend. For example, Father Charlie recalled one weekend where he stood in front of a 12ft X 12ft picture of Elvis Presley and he spoke. He opened with:
“We are here to worship the King. Just not thank king,” as he pointed to Elvis’ crooked smile.
Father Charlie served for 29 years in the Air Force reserve as a Chaplain. He filled in whenever he was needed for services to military members. He was mobilized and deployed to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware as full time Chaplain in 1992 during Desert Storm, and again after 9/11.
During the year, he was a schoolteacher. But in summer, he would be deployed by the Air Force to wherever he was needed for short stints to fill in as Chaplain. He recalled traveling to Turkey, England, and Germany, among other places.
He loved traveling and seeing other countries, but he said his favorite place to be sent was right here in the US. Altus, Oklahoma sits on the panhandle of the state and Father Charlie said he enjoyed the scenery as well as the isolation, which made the people come together to form close communities. He also enjoyed seeing the buffalo.
As a veteran himself, Father Charlie does as much as he can to support the active military as well as veterans. He started a program within the church where volunteers hand make stockings, fill them up, and ship them out to deployed military members and veterans.
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Last year, they sent out 4,000 filled stockings to the USO at Los Angeles airport, the local Air Force Base in Laughlin, and many other places. People make the stockings all year long, and since it’s a tourist town, visitors sometimes make the stockings in their hometown and bring them to Father Charlie when they visit.
Even the casino donates things like playing cards to military members. Father Charlie said he loves this project because it keeps the military and our nation’s veterans in mind all year long.
He said a top-requested item from deployed military members is hot sauce or other flavored sauces to help with the taste of the food they’re provided during deployments. His parishioners include many military veterans.
He recognizes them regularly, and during Veteran’s Day weekend services, he plays each branch’s theme sons and asks members to stand when they hear the song of the branch under which they served.
Father Charlie said he “saves the best for last” with the Air Force theme song. I told him we would have to agree to disagree on that one. At least, he said, he plays the Army theme song first (HOOAH!)
In addition to the military, Father Charlie is very supportive of first responders, especially police. His is one of the few Catholic churches that make a point to pray for military, law enforcement, fire fighters, and all first responders. Every week.
Even though it’s 90 miles away, Laughlin is policed by a subdivision of the Las Vegas Metro Police Department, and he has a great relationship with police there.
Many officers are a part of the church, and the Father has always had a great admiration and respect for them. After a law enforcement officer dies in the line of duty, Father Charlie makes sure to pray for him by name, as well as their families.
Guests comment that they aren’t used to their churches praying for first responders, but they love it.
Although priests are not supposed to “pick a side” or preach about politics during sermons, Father Charlie said he does talk about issues that arise in our nation.
Earlier this week, I wrote an article on Law Enforcement Today about a Jesuit Priest in Belize, Father Jeremy Zipple, who criticized a Texas church for allowing their parishioners to carry guns into a house of worship.
During the incident, a deranged gunman entered the church and opened fire, killing two people. Jack Wilson and several other members of the church were carrying firearms, and Wilson killed the suspect before he could take any more lives.
Father Jeremy said on Twitter:
“This Fri. we’ll bury a 16-yr-old girl gunned down across street from our church. 3 yrs ago our pastor was held at gunpoint in churchyard. But we’ll not permit guns in our church. Some Christians gotta be bold & say no more killing & we trust God enough to take care of the rest.”
To this, Father Charlie said, “I totally disagree with him.”
Father Charlie says that there are several police officers, as well as civilians, who regularly attend his church and conceal carry their firearms. He’s happy that they do this; he wants them to handle dangerous situations that may arise.
He also said that there was a situation a few years ago where a group of people were coming into the church to disrupt the service, so he told the local police.
Police responded by attending the service and hanging out in the back, in uniform, to keep order.
Father Charlie said:
“Gun free zone sounds nice, but it also sounds inviting to a criminal.”
As far as his political opinions, he said that President Trump is the most pro-life president we have had since Reagan. He’s proud of the President’s stance on that and appreciated him being the first president to attend and speak at the National Right to Life convention last January.
He also likes very much that President Trump puts America first.
I asked Father Charlie what he would like to say to the law enforcement community. He said that he wants police to know that they’re appreciated, and that he has great respect for all of them.
“We take them for granted,” he said, “but I can’t imagine society without them. We need to remind people that we are blessed to have them. Life without them would be chaotic and dangerous, and we need to appreciate the good they do, the time they spend and the effort they put forth to keep us safe. They are willing to put their lives in place of ours.”
He also mentioned that the lifestyle is hard on police families, and he recognizes that they’re sending someone out who may not come home. He regularly prays for them and appreciates their sacrifice.
Father Charlie has written and published 3 books, as well as a children’s book called Timmy and the Christmas Owl.
His most recent book is called Living the Dream!, and the other two are Live! Love! Laugh! Laughlin! and Dreams Really do Come True!
A very proud moment for Father Charlie was a few years ago when then-Governor of Nevada, Brian Sandoval, send a note to him saying “Your story is one that all Nevadans can be proud of.”
Father Charlies books are available on Amazon.com, as well as at St. John the Baptist Church in Laughlin, and of course at Riverside Casino.