American Times Las Vegas: Catholicism hits the jackpot in gamblers' paradise

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IS THERE a god in Las Vegas? This is a town, surely, where money is the only true religion, and religious ritual is more about quickie weddings and divorces than any true spirituality.

Or is it? Those monumental gambling houses and casinos along the Strip may look like cathedrals, but in fact the healthiest, best-observed religion in town is also one of the most old-fashioned - that occasionally fusty institution of catechism, rosewater and a ban on divorces, the Roman Catholic Church.

For Vegas, among its many other peculiarities, is the fastest-growing Catholic diocese in the world. Of the 5,000 new residents who descend on this frenzied southern Nevada Mecca each month, roughly one-third are Catholic and a few dozen more convert once they arrive. The fathers of the diocese can't build new churches fast enough - five have gone up in the past few years, and another five are planned for the next 12 months alone. At Our Lady of Las Vegas, one of the older parishes in town (it was founded in 1958), no fewer than eight masses are performed each Sunday, on top of the two to four on the other days of the week. And we are not talking a few old ladies sitting politely in the front rows; the 750-seater church is packed to capacity every time.

"You can tell this is an older church because these days nobody would consider building one with less than 1,200 seats," explained the pastor, Fr Dave Casaleggio.

"Our neighbouring parish has 1,500 seats and still gets swamped. We would build even more churches than we have, except we can't find the clergy to run them."

It would be tempting to see this phenomenal success as some kind of counterweight to the gambling industry - God striking back against Mammon, and not before time. But it is more to do with Las Vegas's phenomenal growth and the natural inclination of many Americans to turn to their church as a source of community spirit and social life - particularly when they have just moved to somewhere new.

"Very few people here are from Las Vegas," explained Fr Casaleggio. "The church is what gives them a sense of identity. You should see the quantity of e-mails I receive from people about to relocate to this area. They want to know about church activities, church schools, and so on."

If anything, the church and the gambling industry co-exist with remarkable ease. "Once in a while I'll go to a casino and spend $10 or $15. I don't think it's a sin, it's fun," Fr Casaleggio confessed.

Many casino-owners are themselves Catholic and contribute large sums both to their parishes and to the community. One Catholic priest has even been known to say mass in a casino, his liturgy clashing unashamedly with the hoots and flashing lights of the slot machines.

On closer inspection, chur-ches such as Our Lady of Las Vegas appear to have been infected with some of the same Vegas spirit as the monster resort hotels on the Strip. When space first became an issue at Our Lady 10 years ago, the diocesan leaders of the time chose simply to build a larger church next door - in much the same spirit as the owners of the Aladdin casino, who blew up their property last year to make way for a better version.

A bit like Caesar's Palace, which boasts a lifesize model of Michelangelo's David in its shopping arcade, Our Lady of Las Vegas has a replica - in marble - of the pieta sitting in some shrubbery overlooking the main road.

However, divorce is still frowned upon, and couples wanting to get married in a hurry will not get any joy from a Catholic priest. Fr Casaleggio insists on six months' preparation, including classes for the bride and groom, or four months as an absolute minimum. "Things are more liberal around here, it's true," he said. "But we're still the Catholic church."