By Matt Gambino
(OSV News) — In a sign of the growing Catholic community of southern Nevada and the Western United States, the Archdiocese of Las Vegas has become the newest archdiocese in America.
A solemn Mass Oct. 16 at the Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer in Las Vegas formally celebrated the designation of the archdiocese and the appointment of Archbishop George Leo Thomas by Pope Francis May 30.
The new metropolitan archdiocese and province of Las Vegas includes Reno, Nevada, and Salt Lake City as suffragan dioceses of the province.
During the Mass, Cardinal Christophe Pierre, the pope’s representative as apostolic nuncio to the United States, placed the pallium — a woolen liturgical garment worn by a metropolitan archbishop — upon Archbishop Thomas’ shoulders. The pallium represents a pastor’s care of his flock and his unity with the pope. Pope Francis gave the archbishop the pallium in June at the Vatican.
Archbishop Thomas, in remarks at the Mass, recognized and thanked the 43 bishops in attendance, the presence of priests from the archdiocese and across the Western states, the women and men religious, leaders of other faith communities and members of his family.
He also cited the representatives of the 30 parishes, five mission churches and four pastoral centers in the archdiocese participating in the Mass.
“You bless me by your presence today,” he said.
The growth in the presence of Catholics in Las Vegas and southern Nevada was a key factor in its elevation to an archdiocese.
Catholics have lived in the region in small numbers since the late 19th century. The Diocese of Reno was established in 1931 and by 1976 it became the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas, reflecting growth in the south around Las Vegas and its booming tourism industry.
It was not until 1995 that the Diocese of Las Vegas was established. At that time there were 26 parishes and four mission churches, not many fewer than today.
The 350,000 Catholics among a total regional population of more than 1 million in 1995 had ballooned to an estimated 750,000 Catholics — including those registered at a parish and not registered — among more than 2 million residents today, according to the archdiocese.
This remarkable growth was “a result of the dynamism and the vitality of the church here,” Cardinal Pierre said at the Mass, adding that the Las Vegas Archdiocese is “what the church is called to be: a living sign of the Savior in the world.”
The elevation to an archdiocese, he said, “is a source of encouragement and renewal of the laborers in the field.”
One effect of a doubling of the Catholic population in 27 years while adding only four more parishes — 26 in 1995, 30 in 2022 — is, particularly in the city of Las Vegas and its suburbs, a changing experience of parish life.
A few Catholic parishes in the archdiocese boast some 40,000 parishioners, and it is not uncommon for parishes to celebrate more than 40 baptisms a week, according to archdiocesan spokesperson Montie Chavez.
Observers attribute the growth to the region’s employment opportunities through hotel resorts, gaming and other entertainment industries, including the new professional football and hockey franchises. People also optimistically choose to make a new life with a good job in a warm, dry climate.
Another reason is more prosaic: Nevada has no state income tax, which has attracted people from California and other states to the Silver State.
Where Catholic communities have long been established, the parish was the locus of a family’s educational, spiritual and social life. This is not as much the case in the East and Midwest of the U.S. as it once was. But, in the Las Vegas Archdiocese, new residents actively seek out community among fellow parishioners, and strong parish communities are formed, said longtime resident, Catholic parishioner and pastoral worker Connie Clough.
Since 1983, Clough has served at several parishes, and today she serves as the archdiocese’s faith formation director.
“The church provides community. People are more connected in church, through social life in the parish,” she told OSV News.
“For the most part, people really work to get to know each other,” Clough said, noting that after a recent surgery, she had numerous offers of food, visits and even holy Communion. “I do think that happens here more often than not.”
As the Catholic community grows, it changes. Officially the archdiocese counts 620,000 registered Catholics, but because of migrant workers and others who do not register with a parish, the archdiocese estimates it serves three-quarters of a million faithful.
Many of those new arrivals are Spanish speakers, and today “there is a very large Hispanic population,” Clough said. In some parishes that were traditionally Anglo, now more Masses are celebrated in Spanish than English, she noted.
But regardless of the language spoken, Clough detects an intense hunger for Catholic formation.
“People are hungry and thirsty for knowledge, and there are no Catholic retreat houses or colleges nearby,” she said.
That is why her office offers in-person faith formation courses that lead to certifications for parishioners and parish leaders who travel into Las Vegas. Clough will even bring the courses to parishes in far-flung rural areas — important for an archdiocese that spans 39,000 square miles.
The archdiocese also takes into consideration Catholics who are among the more than 700,000 tourists who visit Las Vegas each week for its ample entertainment options.
In fact, poker chips used to end up in collection baskets in churches located along “The Strip,” Las Vegas Boulevard, dotted with famous hotel casinos.
But since chips could only be redeemed in the casino that issued them, a priest referred to as “the chip monk” traditionally gathered chips and visited the hotels for the weekly collection.
That quirky bit of Las Vegas Catholic lore has faded as casinos turn to using digital chips.
As the city and the archdiocese continue to grow, at least one resident is overflowing with pride.
“I love Las Vegas, and the church of Las Vegas,” said Clough. “It’s vibrant and growing and faithful.”
She expressed gratitude for “the people here and the giftedness they bring from other places. Everybody is a transplant, and often they bring (the culture) they had, here.”
Matthew Gambino writes for OSV News from Philadelphia.