LAS VEGAS — The state's Roman Catholic diocese has built a $3.5-million shrine just for tourists at this booming gambling and entertainment mecca.
The gleaming white spiritual oasis--adorned with $300,000 worth of religious art--can seat 2,000 people in its upholstered pews, making it the largest church building in Nevada, regardless of denomination.
The Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer, which opened in February last year, is close to a newly valuable intersection of casino hotels on the glitzy Las Vegas Strip--across the street from the pyramid-shaped Luxor Hotel, just south of the Tropicana and not far from the giant MGM Grand.
Yet, despite being within walking distance of 18,000 rooms at six major hotels, few out-of-towners seem to know it's here. So far, the largest of three Sunday Masses averages only about 300 in attendance.
"They should tell more people about this--it's so well-done and so clean," said Stella Kadlec of LaGrange, Ill., one of 40 people who attended the 11:30 a.m. Mass one weekday in August.
The 75-year-old woman may be typical of Roman Catholics who want to include worship along with playing the slot machines, finding bargain buffet meals, catching the nighttime shows and watching the pirate ship battle and fiery volcanic display outside two nearby Strip hotels.
Kadlec said she and her sister come to Las Vegas two or three times a year, and they make it a point to attend services--not to pray for good luck, but to enjoy "a sort of retreat" off the busy Strip.
Normally, she has gone to Mass at Guardian Angel Cathedral, located behind the Desert Inn. But that church serves a parish as well as tourists, and despite its recent expansion, the cathedral is overcrowded with 8,000 to 9,000 worshipers every weekend.
"(The Strip) is so materialistic that people want to step back a bit, and some people just like to go to church," said Bishop Daniel F. Walsh, who has headed the Reno-Las Vegas Diocese since 1987.
Word about the new shrine has been given to taxi drivers and hotel concierges, but the job turnover is considerable and with the constant influx of tourists, "every Saturday you start from ground zero," as one priest put it.
Separated from Las Vegas Boulevard by a parking lot for Excalibur Hotel and Casino employees, the church is set back from the Strip. But it is visible if you know where to look. *
The white stucco shrine is built in an A-shape that rises to the equivalent of three stories, dwarfing a seven-foot statue of Jesus with outstretched arms.
However, no neon angels are there to compete with the obelisk and giant sphinx entrance to the Luxor, or to share the spotlight with the brightly colored turrets on the castle-like Excalibur.
Jennifer Morelli, office secretary at the church, adds good-naturedly: "(And) we have no cross revolving high in the sky."
The shrine does, however, have its own noteworthy features, albeit on a relatively modest scale. In addition to a 300-year-old painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe and a mural depicting Roman Catholic pioneers in the Americas in the church's chapel, another bronze statue of Christ seated on a rock outside the entrance offers visitors the chance to photograph themselves with Jesus.
"But when the temperature outside is 110 degrees, Jesus' lap is 150 degrees, so we don't advise parents to let kids sit in his lap then," said Father James Bevan, until recently the shrine's rector.
Like the bishop, who regards a show at the Luxor featuring ancient Egyptian gods as "just entertainment," Bevan does not see Las Vegas as an evil and degrading place but rather as a vacation spot where most tourists simply come to have fun. "People basically behave themselves and go home," the priest said.
"The truth is, Las Vegas is a holy place," Bevan said with a smile."You see people praying in the casinos, and trust me, when they pray in the casinos, they really mean it."
In spite of the shrine's low profile, Bishop Walsh is looking toward long-range needs and is encouraged by strong financial support in the city.
"I anticipate it will take three to five years before we get filled with people," said Walsh, 57, who previously was an auxiliary bishop in San Francisco.
Walsh cannot be faulted for lack of foresight.
Running out of time in 1989 to find a worship site at the growing north end of the Strip, Walsh said he bought five acres for $2.6 million at the corner of Giles Street and Reno Avenue.
Major donors for church construction have included MGM Grand's Kirk Kerkorian, the Hilton Hotels, Caesars Palace and the family that owns the Palace Station casino-hotel.
"A lot of people who have made their money off tourism wanted to show their gratitude by giving something to the church," said William Turbay, president of Martinez & Murphey, the Las Vegas religious art company that is still adding sculptures to the church interior.
Nevada Roman Catholics have been pleased to "present our local church in such a visible and attractive way," Walsh said.
Shortly after the Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer opened, Walsh turned down a developer's offer of $13.5 million to buy the land and to move the church building about two miles away.
"Some things are worth more than money," the bishop said.