This Catholic priest celebrates Mass in a casino. He calls prayer a ‘sure bet’

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Charlie Urnick stands in a backstage hallway at Don’s Celebrity Theater, tucked inside the thrumming Riverside Resort Hotel and Casino. Smiling, shaking hands with well-wishers, he awaits the evening’s events with the knowing calm of a veteran headliner.

But inside this brightly lit corridor, where musicians and magicians have signed autographs and greeted fans, Urnick offers something truly remarkable.

He hears confessions.

He’s the administrator at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, which sits atop a treeless hill some five miles away. But the 71-year-old Urnick is better known to parishioners and just about everyone else around this casino river town simply as Father Charlie.

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After a deacon helps him slip into his flowing satin vestments, he quietly listens to the ways his fellow Catholics have gone astray.

Father Charlie Urnick
Father Charlie Urnick sits with a parishioner in a hallway at Don’s Celebrity Theater at Riverside Resort Hotel and Casino in Laughlin, Nev. There’s no confessional booth -- just priest and penitent facing each other on folding chairs.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

One by one, the believers wait outside for their turn. There’s no confessional booth, and priest and penitent face each other on folding chairs. They are eye to eye, but Father Charlie puts them at ease.

“Painless,” says one confessor, crossing herself as she leaves the hallway.

On this late-autumn Saturday afternoon, Father Charlie is continuing a 27-year tradition that’s aptly suited to Laughlin.

He celebrates Mass inside a casino.

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Yes, you read that right.

Forget bingo. We’re in the realm of hard-line games of chance. After hearing confessions, Father Charlie leads a small procession into the 700-seat theater with its bordello-red wallpaper, not far from the cartoonish squawks of slot machines.

For the next hour, he preaches in a place where, for some, the real God is the almighty dollar. He faces his congregation from a floor-level pulpit, in front of a stage and its drum set looming in the darkness.

Father Charlie Urnick celebrates Mass
Father Charlie Urnick celebrates Mass at Don’s Celebrity Theater in Laughlin. The 71-year-old Urnick is better known around this casino river town simply as Father Charlie.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Hours later, a Karen Carpenter impersonator will take this same stage. For now, behind Father Charlie stands a slender pole with a crucifix mounted on top.

Still, distractions abound in a place more associated with the Seven Deadly Sins than 14 Stations of the Cross. Sharing the venue with acts that appear during the rest of the week, Father Charlie has given Holy Communion before a huge backdrop of a Skyy vodka bottle and images of sultry Budweiser girls and Elvis, prompting him to jokingly remind the faithful they’re praying to God the King, and not the King.

Father Charlie has no problem with any of it. In fact, he insists that this implausible place is precisely where he should be.

“The pope says priests should be where the people are,” he said says. “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.”

Parishioners attend Mass
Parishioners follow along as Scripture is read by Father Charlie Urnick at Don’s Celebrity Theater. “The pope says priests should be where the people are,” he says.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The theater’s first dozen rows feature long tables where parishioners, some dressed in shorts and flip-flops, consult hymnals and church bulletins. One ponytailed man shoves a betting form into his pocket just as services begin.

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As the collection basket passes, some toss in casino chips and slot machine receipts, which Father Charlie gladly accepts. He’s even designed his own souvenir chip the parish sells for fundraising. Some refer to him as the “chip monk.”

“Pray with us,” the chip reads, bearing a picture of the Riverside casino and Mass hours. “It’s a sure bet.”

The chips — along with candles, medals and other items you’d find in religious bookstore — are arranged for sale at a long table-bar where workers sell alcoholic drinks at other events. As the service ends, Father Charlie adds an encouragement not heard at other churches.

“Don’t forget to visit the bar on the way out,” he urges.

A retiree then slides into his electric wheelchair and heads for the door.

“It’s off to the casino,” he says. “Let’s hope I don’t lose the farm.”

To those who might say that God could not possibly be here, I say he is.

Father Charlie Urnick

::

In his sermons, Father Charlie forgoes fire and brimstone in favor of Andy Rooney-like humor. His talks also tend to mention such appetizing dishes as noodles with sauerkraut, ice cream pie, mushroom ravioli and other meals he’s consumed that week — including pastries baked by doting parishioners for a roundish priest who admits he’s never cooked a meal in his life and has rarely set foot in a gym.

“God created angel food cake,” he says in one sermon. “And it is good.”

Such is the power of Father Charlie’s pulpit that whenever he offhandedly mentions a fondness for pineapple pound cake, bacon or cheese curds, the packages pour in from around the country.

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Riverside Resort Hotel and Casino
Masses at the Riverside Resort Hotel and Casino began in 1992.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Since 2008, when he arrived in Laughlin from his home state of New Jersey, where he served as an Air Force chaplain, schoolteacher and parish priest, Father Charlie has begun each sermon by referring to this city 100 miles south of Las Vegas as paradise on Earth.

He loves the sunshine and mix of colorful snowbirds and locals, a place where he can play the penny slots to relax after a long day of being a priest. While he one day wants to go to heaven, he says, Laughlin will do just fine for now, thank you. He’s a huge fan of magic and drives regularly to Las Vegas, where he’s seen more than 350 magicians perform, some of whom refer to him as “Charlie the Chaplain.” He insists his introduction to David Copperfield was “better than meeting the pope.”

He’s a priest without pretense, who has worn green florescent sneakers during Mass and greets people with his favorite phrases, “See you in church!” and “Pray for me, what harm could it do?” All with a boyish laugh and a propensity for the words “golly” and “gosh.” He began one homily insisting the only tools anyone needed in life were WD-40 and a roll of duct tape.

Father Charlie Urnick looks over his notes
Father Charlie Urnick looks over his notes before a service. His sermons are more Andy Rooney-style humor, less fire and brimstone.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Many pulpit anecdotes involve his weekly parish adventures and his boyhood pet alligator and taxidermied penguin. Or how his mother, Mary, disciplined him by brandishing the family’s parrot with its outstretched claws. When he refused to get out of bed, she’d threaten, “Don’t make me get the parrot!”

He’s come a long way from his first sermon decades ago, about which one priest said: “It was read, it was read poorly and it wasn’t worth reading!”

His sermons — compiled into three self-published books with such titles as “Live! Love! Laugh! Laughlin!” — are also spiced with jokes he gleans from the internet. On Father’s Day, for example, Father Charlie said: “My father only hit me once — but it was with a Volvo.” It got the laugh but then evolved into a meditation on the role of God as a loving father.

Some anecdotes even target his flock. Father Charlie once told of a visiting priest who was shocked by all the sin he’d witnessed in Laughlin, commenting on “all those pathetic old people putting money into machines and they don’t know God!”

Father Charlie replied: “Those pathetic old people are my parishioners!”

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Father Charlie Urnick
Father Charlie Urnick, center, talks with Gracemarie LaBarge, left, and Frank LaBarge, of Kingman, Ariz.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The casino Masses were started in 1992 by Father John McShane, who sometimes encountered bits of skimpy showgirl costumes on the carpet. Even after the parish church was built in 2003, the Riverside services continued. Each weekend now features two church Masses and three inside the casino — one on Saturday and two on Sunday.

“We’ll never leave here,” Father Charlie says, adding that some parishioners attend the casino Masses only. “Once we close those doors, you’re in a church.”

For years, before he was assigned here, Father Charlie made annual pilgrimages from New Jersey, his mother in tow, as a guest pastor in Laughlin. Mary would attend a service and then spend the rest of the time working the slot machines.

Once, both he and his mother won $5,000 on the same quarter-slot one day apart.

Mary died in 2006, two years before Father Charlie moved here full time, and he received hundreds of sympathy cards.

Column One

A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Times.

His sermons have related how Mary came to terms with him entering the priesthood after a friend consoled her, “Well, this way you won’t ever lose him to another woman.” He also regales listeners with stories of two longtime actor friends he calls “the boys.” Eddie Gelhaus is the priest’s “illegitimate son” and Michael Serrano is his “brother from another mother.”

Some listeners don’t always get the joke. John and Kathy Reed were visiting from Wisconsin a few years ago when they first met Father Charlie, and Kathy was shocked by talk of a priest having a son.

“I didn’t know you were married,” she said.

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“I’m not,” Father Charlie replied.

Reed still laughs at the exchange.

“Well, my wife’s jaw just dropped, until she got to know him,” he says.

The Reeds asked around town about this peculiar priest. “Everybody knew him,” says Reed, a retired longshoreman. “He was a legend.”

So, the couple moved to Laughlin to hear Father Charlie’s sermons all the time and are now active church members.

Reed notes that the priest keeps in his church office two slot machines, one called the “God Game,” and has a stage-prop collection that includes a 14-inch dagger and a bed of nails. “He’s so down to earth,” Reed says. “We like that.”

Mass at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church
Mass at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Laughlin. Each weekend now features two church Masses and three inside the casino — one on Saturday and two on Sunday.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

::

A few months ago, Father Charlie was visiting Ely in northern Nevada on church business. He stayed at a casino hotel and played penny slots. During the night, he suffered a stroke, which severely affected his eyesight.

Then, around Halloween, Father Charlie tripped over a bag of books at his home and dislocated his right shoulder, damaging a nerve that caused him to lose all feeling in his arm and hand. He wears a sling and does not know if any sensation will return.

Friends and parishioners have rallied around their priest. With Father Charlie unable to drive, they now ferry him around town, including visits to dozens of sick residents each Monday.

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The boys bought him a watch with enlarged numerals for his damaged eyes. Another feature automatically alerts them if he takes another fall.

Gelhaus and Serrano cemented their friendship with Father Charlie years ago when they took rooms at his house in Las Vegas, turning what the priest had considered a personal refuge into a bachelor crash pad. Still, the older man was always full of good cheer and fatherly advice, they said, and none of it “preachy.”

In return, they helped a wide-eyed and yet somewhat sheltered priest experience life outside his religious flock. They insisted on calling him by his first name, saying he was Charlie long before he was Father Charlie.

With the boys, Father Charlie also drank his first beer and kamikaze shot, rode his first rollercoaster at Disneyland and bought his first cellphone. In turn, he has counseled them on girlfriends, and once sent a text to Gelhaus that urged, “Kick the girl next to you out of bed and give me a call.”

At one point, after a series of mishaps in which Gelhaus broke the TV remote, lost an expensive GPS device and then bumbled over filing his tax returns, a frustrated Father Charlie blurted out, “You’re the son I never wanted!”

The phrase stuck. Gelhaus now calls the priest “Pa.”

Serrano always teased the priest for his “God complex” and, in one sermon, Father Charlie said he hoped he’d never lose his eyesight because he wanted to see the sarcastic look on Serrano’s face whenever he talked about the Lord.

But now it has happened. And the flock frets.

For years, church volunteer Bernadette Thompson has plied Father Charlie with homemade cookies, Rice Krispies bars and pineapple upside-down cake. Now she doesn’t know what to do.

“We worry about him,” she said.

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Father Charles Urnick greets visitors
Father Charlie Urnick greets Meg Domingo and her father, July Domingo, of Bullhead City, Ariz., at Don’s Celebrity Theater. “There are 11 casinos in Laughlin, so this is where we have taken our services,” the priest says.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Father Charlie is more worried about others. When a food bank needed winter coats for the homeless, he put out the call. Within hours, 220 coats poured in.

“We couldn’t survive without him,” said Sandy West, the group’s volunteer coordinator.

For now, the priest perseveres over his health setbacks. After a recent Mass, he stood in the casino lobby, using his good left hand to greet congregants. Some women moved in for hugs. The men joked.

“Father Charlie, you gotta find some other place for that sling,” one said, pointing to the lump in the vestments. “You look pregnant!”

That got a laugh too.

The casino Masses now have a new feature, something that’s not his doing or his request. Along with a call to remember the sick and shut-in, the lay reader asks parishioners to pray for Father Charlie’s eyesight and injured arm.

That’s when a murmur of concern rolls through this casino church crowd.

Glionna is a special correspondent.