It’s 1:45 on Saturday afternoon when I climb into my Uber.
I’m immediately grateful for the air conditioning. Even waiting in the shade outside the Las Vegas airport, the midday heat is no joke.
When I left Denver earlier in the afternoon, it was in the mid 50s. Here, it’s in the mid 90s.
And really, I’m lucky. It’s still early June. The high today is only 97. In a few weeks the temperatures will soar into the triple digits.
My driver circumvents the Strip. But we’re still close enough that the road is flanked by bright billboards, advertising strip clubs and comedy shows and prime rib dinners – various forms of Las Vegas entertainment.
“Smile. You’re on cannabis,” proclaims one billboard. I roll my eyes. I’ve had more than my fill of weed advertisements back home in Colorado.
It’s only about three or four miles from the airport to the cathedral, but the drive seems to take a while. There are a lot of people and a lot of cars.
I’ve been told that summer is typically the slow season in Las Vegas, because of the heat. The biggest conventions and crowds come in the winter, when much of the country is covered in a blanket of snow.
In the summer, there are fewer conventions, and smaller ones. Hotels run discounts.
But the crowds filing out into the streets behind the casinos don’t seem particularly small. I guess slow season in Vegas isn’t really that slow.
Plus, tonight is the first game of the Stanley Cup finals. The Golden Knights will be facing off against the Florida Panthers, playing at the T-Mobile Arena, right next to the New York-New York Hotel. I’m sure that hockey-in-the-desert is drawing a fair number of people into the city.
I briefly wonder if I’ll see any of the Stanley Cup players at Mass. How would I even know if I were to see one? I haven’t followed the NHL closely in a number of years.
I guess I could just look for broken noses and missing teeth.
Driving past more strip club billboards, I think about how ironic it is that the Catholic Church in Las Vegas is seeing exponential growth – some of the most impressive in the country.
In 1995, when Las Vegas became a diocese, it was home to about 250,000 Catholics. Today, that number is around 750,000.
And it’s not just because of the rapid influx of people moving to Nevada, I’m told.
Local Church officials have told me that the diocese and its parishes are gaining members even in established neighborhoods, where there aren’t new houses being built.
The growth has been so pronounced that just this week, Pope Francis elevated the Diocese of Las Vegas to an archdiocese.
So what’s it like to spend Sunday morning on the Strip of the newly minted Archdiocese of Las Vegas? That’s what I’m here to find out.
My driver finally rounds the corner to arrive at Guardian Angel Cathedral.
“Oh my gosh, it’s tiny,” I think. Most things are bigger in Vegas — the shows, the lights, the risk. Not the cathedral though.
The building is surprisingly small for a cathedral. And sitting next to the 48-story Encore hotel and casino, it looks even smaller.
Guardian Angel Cathedral has an unusual history. It was originally designed not as a cathedral but a shrine, back when the entire state of Nevada was part of the Diocese of Reno.
In 1958, a local priest began celebrating a 4:30 a.m. Mass for Catholic bartenders, waiters and other hotel and casino employees working the late shift on the Strip.
The Masses were originally held in the Royal Hotel and Casino showroom.
Within a few years, it was clear that a dedicated church building was needed. St. Viator’s Guardian Angel Shrine was completed in 1963.
It would later become Guardian Angel Cathedral, when the Diocese of Las Vegas was erected in 1995, splitting off from the Diocese of Reno because of the population growth in the area.
The building underwent a renovation in the ‘90s, but the original structure of the church has remained largely unchanged.
Since the building was originally designed as a shrine, it was never intended to hold cathedral-sized crowds. It can hold only about 1,200 people. Masses were frequently standing-room only, and congregations spilled out onto the plaza, which was rough in triple-digit Las Vegas temperatures.
This eventually led to the construction of the Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer at the south end of the Strip in 1993.
Today, tourists have their choice of 10 different weekend Masses between the two churches.
It’s a little after 2:00 when I arrive at the cathedral, so I still have a little while before the anticipated Mass for Sunday — the Vigil Mass — begins at 2:30.
A 2:30 Vigil Mass is rare. I’ve certainly never been to one before. Anticipated Masses usually start at 4 p.m. or later in the U.S.
But Las Vegas obtained a special indult from the Holy See, more than 30 years ago, to hold an earlier vigil Mass, in order to accommodate shift workers on the Strip.
That’s just one of the things that makes Guardian Angel Cathedral unique.
It’s also, archdiocesan officials tell me, believed to be the only Catholic cathedral in the country designed by a Black architect.
A few days before coming down to Vegas, I chatted with Bill Freeman, the pastoral associate of operations at the cathedral.
Freeman told me that the cathedral was designed by acclaimed architect Paul Revere Williams, one of the first Black architects to gain prominence in the U.S., while overcoming racist practices of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s.
Williams made a name for himself designing YMCA buildings, apartments, hospitals, and churches, as well as houses for celebrities, including Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball.
Many of the homes Williams designed were in segregated areas, where Black people were not allowed to live.
Also fascinating, Freeman told me, is that Williams could hand-draw renderings upside down, because at the time, a Black man was not supposed to sit on the same side of a table as a white client.
I study the cathedral. It’s an A-frame building with a large, modern-looking mosaic above the main door.
I appreciate the history, especially after talking with Freeman.
But if I’m honest, it’s not my favorite style of art.
It’s about 2:10, and people are starting to arrive for Mass, so I station myself by the door, hoping to talk to a few of them on their way in.
A man wearing a blue USA t-shirt, khaki shorts, and tennis shoes walks up the steps. I introduce myself as a journalist, but he starts shaking his head before I can finish my sentence.
I quickly explain that I’m covering the elevation of the diocese to an archdiocese, and ask him whether he’s a local or a tourist.
“I live here,” he says brusquely, before walking into the church building and shutting the door in my face.
Another man walks by me. He’s wearing athletic pants and a gray t-shirt, sporting a necklace with a cross.
He smiles at me when I approach him, but he’s clearly in a hurry to get inside, despite the fact that Mass doesn’t begin for another 20 minutes. He too lives in the area, and this is the Mass he normally attends.
I talk to a few more people. They’re all locals, and this is the Mass they normally attend. None of them want to talk much.
One Filipino woman ignores me. I can’t tell if she can’t understand me, or if she just doesn’t want to talk.
I wonder why these people are all so hesitant to talk. I’m dressed professionally; I don’t look like a panhandler. But maybe they’re afraid of being swindled? This is Las Vegas, after all.
After about 20 minutes, I’m beginning to sweat, even standing in the shade. Mass is about to start. I walk back into the church and slide into a pew.
The church is pretty full, but not packed. There are plenty of open seats for latecomers.
Everyone seems to be dressed pretty casually. I’m one of maybe a dozen women wearing a dress. There are a few men in button-up shirts, but apart from the ushers, I don’t see anyone in a tie. A lot of people are wearing t-shirts.
As I look around, I notice the ethnic diversity of the congregation. Bill Freeman told me earlier that the archdiocese has a highly diverse population. About a third of the archdiocese is Hispanic – including Mexicans, as well as Salvadorian, Guatemalan, Ecuadorian, and Bolivian populations. There are also significant Filipino and Vietnamese populations.
There are a lot of Latino and Filipino people sitting around me. Maybe one-third of the congregation? I’m not able to get a good estimate before Mass starts.
It’s a pretty typical modern Mass. We sing Amazing Grace. The priest gives a brief homily on the Holy Trinity and how it’s a mystery. Then he talks about the significance of the diocese’s elevation to an archdiocese, and explains what a province is.
I spend a fair amount of time wondering where the tabernacle is. I can’t see it up at the front of the church anywhere.
As Mass goes on, I see people continue to trickle in. Maybe they’re the tourists, I think. Maybe the locals are the ones who arrived early.
When it comes time for the collection, I take a curious glance inside the basket as it passes by. I’m disappointed to see there are no poker chips inside. People really do that sometimes, Bill Freeman told me. Except they’re not usually chips these days. They’re cash-out vouchers from slot machines, and usually for tiny amounts - like seven cents. But someone still has to go cash them out at the casino.
After Mass, everyone disperses pretty quickly. There’s not much of a narthex, and it’s almost 100 degrees outside. I guess no one wants to stick around.
I do manage to talk with a few people on the way out of church. I see a man wearing a t-shirt that says “Faith, Family, Flag, Freedom.” His wife is wearing a pink Rolling Stones t-shirt.
The couple is friendly. The woman tells me that they’re tourists. She says she’s been coming to the cathedral since she was a little girl, every time she visits Las Vegas.
“I love it,” she says of the Mass. “It’s so traditional. And uplifting.”
Another couple is sporting Stanley Cup t-shirts. It’s not hard to guess what they’re here for. They tell me they’re from North Dakota, but they’re rooting for Las Vegas.
Most of the congregation has dispersed by now. I head back inside to get a closer look at the art inside the church. I find the tabernacle. It’s in a side chapel.
Then I take a look at the giant triangular stained-glass windows. I’ve read online that they each include a gambling theme. But looking at them, I can see that’s not true. At least I don’t think it is. It’s a little hard for me to decipher what’s going on in some of them.
It’s clear that they’re depicting the Stations of the Cross, but some are combined into a single window, and there are additional figures included as well. I think I see Cain murdering Abel in one of them.
Another appears to depict a man with a pile of golden coins in his lap, looking down at the fallen Christ on the road to Calvary. It’s possibly Judas, though the coins should be silver, right? Whoever it is, maybe that’s the window which got the gambling rumor started?
At the front of the church is a large sanctuary mural. It appears to show the resurrected Christ, surrounded by souls being raised to heaven. It’s very modern.
The art doesn’t match my personal taste. But I’m told that people sometimes wander over from the Strip because they’re struck by the art and architecture of the building.
And also because it seems strange to see a church building on the Strip.
Either way, if Las Vegas tourists visit a church, that’s a good thing.
The cathedral is just about empty now. An armed police officer stands at the entrance.
It’s time for me to make my way down to the opposite end of the Strip.
Uber won’t let me catch a ride at the cathedral for some reason, so I have to walk over to the entrance of the Encore.
I grumble at my Uber app as I walk along the street. It’s hot, and I’m sweating again.
I pass a homeless man leaning against a wall. He’s trying to stay out of the heat.
I round the corner back onto the Las Vegas Strip. I pass a stretch limo and a group of tourists. They’re loud. Some of them look tipsy. One woman is wearing a bra without a shirt and billowy pants.
Oh yeah, I remember, I’m in Las Vegas.
My Uber driver pulls around in front of the Encore, and I climb in.
I’m struck by a strong smell that I can’t quite place.
Looking around, I see an air freshener hanging on each passenger door. There’s two more sitting in a notch in the center compartment. All of them are marked “Black Ice.”
It’s a scent I can’t quite describe. It smells like air freshener. I don’t know what black ice smells like, so maybe it smells like that, too.
Hanging from the rearview mirror, I see three more air fresheners – and a rosary.
“I like your rosary. Are you Catholic?” I ask the driver, whose name is Luis.
He is Catholic. He tells me he always likes to drive with a rosary on his rearview mirror. He says he would like to drive with more than one, but the police limit him to one. They say any more than that could block his vision and present a driving hazard.
I glance around at the eight visible air fresheners dangling down from various parts of the Toyota Camry. I wonder how many rosaries he would like to have.
I arrive at the Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer just as the 4 p.m. Mass is about to start.
I notice immediately how spacious this church is compared to the cathedral. There’s a bigger, brighter narthex. Off to one side, there’s a small gift shop. Off to the other side, there’s a perpetual adoration chapel.
From a logistical standpoint alone, this church seems much more conducive to fostering community, I think.
The body of the church is huge. The six-sided nave fans out from the altar. The shrine can seat about 2,000 people. It’s the biggest church in the archdiocese.
The style of the shrine is very different from that of the cathedral. Bronze tableaus line the walls, depicting scenes from the life of Jesus. The Wedding at Cana. The Washing of the Apostles’ Feet.
The tabernacle is much easier to find at the shrine. It’s right off the side of the altar.
There are probably about as many people at this Mass as there were at the cathedral, I think, but it’s hard to tell because the space is so different.
The congregation is different too. I see more Latino and Filipino people than I did at the cathedral, and, I think, fewer tourists.
There aren’t nearly as many t-shirts at this Mass, although there are still some. Most of the men seem to be wearing collared shirts. Still no ties though.
The Mass is celebrated by the shrine’s rector, Fr. Manuel Quintero.
At the beginning of Mass, he mentions that the diocese has been elevated to an archdiocese. But he trips up on his words a little during the Eucharistic prayer, when he is not sure exactly how to reference Archbishop Thomas. I guess that will take some getting used to.
Fr. Manuel preaches about Holy Trinity Sunday. He emphasizes the need for God.
“God didn’t tell us, ‘Without me, you can do a little.’ No. He said, ‘Without me, you can do nothing’,” he says.
When it’s time for the collection, the ushers place big buckets in the middle of the floor. People leave their pews, in no particular order, to drop money in.
I’ve never seen a collection conducted this way.
I wait until the end and then go drop in a dollar. I take a peek inside the bucket, but there are no poker chips here either. I’m disappointed.
Coming back from the money bucket, I look around the church.
I see a man at the back cradling a baby.
I also see a man at the back cradling a dog. Interesting. I make a mental note to talk to the Dog Guy after Mass.
Immediately after the consecration, Fr. Manuel tells us that today is his birthday. He says he won’t tell us his age, but he was born in 1949.
At the end of Mass, the congregation sings Happy Birthday. After he processes out, Father stands in the narthex, blessing people’s hands with holy water.
Outside the church, I see Dog Guy. He tells me his dog is a maltipoo, and that he brings her with him everywhere. That’s all the information he offers. Then he ducks back inside the church to take a few selfies with her.
I follow Dog Guy back inside the church. The narthex is mostly empty now. I see a podium in the middle of the room with a plaque on it.
The plaque recognizes the shrine’s role in responding to the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, when a shooter at the Mandalay Bay opened fire into a crowded music festival, killing 60.
The shrine, which is right across the street from the Mandalay Bay, became a safe haven for people fleeing. It served as a base for emergency responders.
The plaque thanks the shrine community for its support of first responders and the FBI, as well as for offering a “peaceful and prayerful place” during the shooting and its aftermath.
It’s just after 5:00 now, and I’m hungry. I still haven’t been to my hotel. Everything I brought with me is stuffed in a large diaper bag, which turned out to be the perfect size for a one-night trip.
As I look at restaurant options on the Strip, I’m tempted for a moment by the idea of a steak dinner or a fancy French meal.
But I have a limited company per diem, and I’ve already decided I want to use it to play poker.
So I settle for a quick pasta alfredo and a glass of wine. Then I check in at my hotel and spend a little while writing down everything I’ve seen so far. I don’t want to forget anything.
While I’m at my hotel, my editors JD and Ed text me to check in. I tell them everything’s going fine. Ed wishes me luck at the casino. I tell him that when you’re as good as I am, you don’t need luck.
I’m being cocky, of course. But I am a pretty good poker player.
I bet most of the people who come here think that.
I haven’t played in quite a while, but back in college, I could hold my own. And the one time I had been to Vegas before – for my 21st birthday, now more than a decade ago – I made a little money, about $100. I’m pretty proud of that story.
Around 8:00, I’m ready to go. I decide to try out the Venetian. I warm up with a few penny slots.
After losing a few dollars, I decide I’m bored. I hit the “Cash out” button, and the slot machine gives me a ticket to exchange for my remaining money.
I stick my receipt into the nearby cash machine. The machine spits out some dollar bills, but it doesn’t give coins. Instead, it dispenses a new cash-out ticket for 40 cents, with instructions to redeem it at the cashier’s station.
But I’m not going to. I know just what I’m going to do with the ticket. I’m going to put it in the collection basket at church tomorrow.
Then I walk around the floor, looking for table poker.
My favorite game is Texas Hold ‘Em. The thing I really like about poker is engaging with the other players. Bluffing and calling other people’s bluffs. Trying to get a read on them without letting them get a read on me. I love it.
I find the tables, but they’re packed. I don’t see a single open seat. Am I just supposed to wait for an opening? Am I supposed to sign up somewhere? I look around, but I don’t see any employees nearby to ask.
I sit down at a slot machine nearby to watch for a while. But there are no seats opening up. Everyone seems very engaged in the table games.
I decide to try the Palazzo, connected to the Venetian. I walk through the halls, watching tourists meander around.
In the Palazzo, I can’t find any poker tables. I’m getting a little annoyed. I don’t want to keep walking from casino to casino.
I‘m not a huge fan of Blackjack, so I guess that leaves me with a house-banked game, like Ultimate Texas Hold ‘Em or Mississippi Stud.
House-banked games aren’t my favorite. Rather than playing against other people who are equally invested, you play against a stone-faced dealer who has no real skin in the game.
But my feet are starting to hurt from walking all day. I decide to just pick a table. I pull out $200 and decide I will play until it’s gone. Hopefully, I won’t blow through it too quickly.
It’s right around 9:00. I order a cosmo and settle in.
It’s just after 10:30 when I stand up from the table. I look at the chips in my hand.
Not bad, I think. Not bad at all.
I walk over to the cashier’s station, and hand my chips to the woman working there. She counts out 14 crisp hundred dollar bills and places them in my hand. I’ve never held $1,400 before. It’s kind of fun.
I send a victorious text to JD and Ed as I walk out of the casino. I can’t resist the urge to gloat a little.
I step out of the building and into the pleasant night air. The temperature is much nicer now that the sun has gone down. Probably in the low 80s, I’d guess.
The Strip is fun to see at night. Everything is lit up. I stroll down the sidewalk, soaking in the sights and sounds of Las Vegas Boulevard. Billboards are flashing bright-colored advertisements for various concerts. People are talking and laughing and pausing to pose for social media pictures. I pass three or four bachelorette parties, the brides-to-be wearing various white outfits, flanked by bridesmaids in little black dresses.
I realize I’m approaching the end of the Strip. As I walk up to the Encore, I see the top of the cathedral peeking up from between the trees. It’s quiet and dark and humble. If I didn’t know it was there, I probably wouldn’t even notice it.
I turn around and look back down Las Vegas Boulevard. It’s loud and bright and excessive. The juxtaposition is striking.
It’s getting late, so I head back to my hotel. I get to sleep shortly before midnight.
It’s 7:11 on Sunday morning, and I’m in an Uber heading back to the cathedral.
I’m tired, and my feet are sore. My phone tells me I walked five and a half miles yesterday. And I’m not wearing great walking shoes.
I arrive at the cathedral 15 minutes before the 7:30 Mass. This is the demographic I’m most curious about. Who attends Mass at 7:30 a.m. on the Vegas Strip? I sure wouldn’t, if it weren’t part of my job.
I see lots of taxis and rideshares pulling up in front of the cathedral. It looks like a lot of people are arriving from the Strip. Certainly more than yesterday.
I walk over to one couple and introduce myself. They’re much friendlier than the people at yesterday’s cathedral Mass.
The couple is from St. Louis – the Rome of the West, the woman proudly tells me. They’re here on vacation, and they walked over to the cathedral from their hotel. Because of the time difference between Nevada and Missouri, it was easy to wake up early, they say.
The woman asks me why the diocese is being elevated to an archdiocese, and I explain the massive growth of the Church in the area.
She’s surprised to hear about that growth. Back home, she says, they’re consolidating parishes as congregations age and shrink. Even in the Rome of the West.
That’s how it is in a lot of the country, I tell her. But in Las Vegas, the growth has been exponential.
It seems strange for a place known as Sin City. But Archbishop George Leo Thomas doesn’t think the growth and vitality of his new archdiocese is a coincidence.
In fact, he thinks the Catholic community is thriving because of its location. He said as much at the press conference this past week announcing the creation of the archdiocese:
“I have found that this is a very strong, faith-filled, family-oriented community, and I honestly believe that it is in direct reaction to the carnality and secularity of the Strip.”
Both the cathedral and the shrine are on the Strip, and they serve mainly tourists. It’s an important service. But of course, much of what makes the archdiocese a thriving local Church is not found on the Strip, but tucked away in parishes, where ordinary families live and work.
It’s found in vibrant adoration evenings, Bible studies, social groups, and ministries. I’m told that booming young adult groups in the area routinely draw 100 or more participants. Churches frequently have Masses that are standing-room only. Some parishes have as many as 40,000 members.
It’s an interesting dichotomy, which I’m still thinking about as I slip into my pew a few minutes later.
There’s a different priest celebrating this Mass. I don’t catch his name or connection to the cathedral.
There are maybe a few hundred people at the Mass. Even though the cathedral is small, it feels pretty empty. I’m not surprised. It’s early. I see several people yawning.
There definitely seems to be a higher percentage of tourists at this Mass, I think. There are several people wearing backpacks, and a few with fanny packs.
In general, people are a little dressier today. I see more polo shirts and button up shirts, although there are still a fair number of t-shirts.
When it’s time for the offertory, I’m excited to toss in my 40-cent cash-out voucher from the night before. It’s the only one in the basket.
I also toss in some cash. I did win a nice little sum last night.
Partway through the Mass, I’m distracted by the arrival of a man who enters a pew across the aisle, a few rows ahead of me.
He’s carrying a small brown dog.
It’s another Dog Guy!
Dog Guy II has a serious expression on his face. His right arm is covered in tattoos. He’s a lot less affectionate with his dog than the first Dog Guy. Instead of holding it throughout the Mass, he sets it down on the pew. It’s a well-trained dog. It remains quietly seated as Dog Guy II stands and kneels.
I’m excited to go ask Dog Guy II about his dog. But he leaves abruptly out a side door as the priest is processing out. I try to follow him, but there’s a crowd of people leaving all at once, and I can’t get to him in time.
Outside the church, I look around, a little disappointed that Dog Guy II got away.
I talk to a few more people. I meet a couple from Ohio. Again, tourists. This is their first time in Las Vegas, and they came to the cathedral because it was close to their hotel. They wanted to get an early start because they leave today and wanted to fit some more activities into their day before they leave.
By the time I’m done talking with the Ohioans, people are starting to arrive for the 9 a.m. Mass. I sit outside the cathedral in the shade, listening to the faint sound of music drifting over from the Strip.
Once again, there are a lot of people arriving in taxis and Ubers. More backpacks. More fanny packs.
I notice several families with young children and babies in strollers. That’s something I haven’t seen much of since I arrived.
The 9 a.m. Mass is a lot more full than the 7:30 a.m. - maybe twice as full. It still seems pretty touristy. The parking lot still has plenty of open spots. There aren’t too many people who drove themselves here.
Right before Mass starts, I see a man walk into church carrying a pink Victoria’s Secret tote bag and two bouquets of flowers, still wrapped in plastic. He walks up the front pew and sits down.
I wonder what’s in the bag. I wonder what he’s going to do with the flowers. Are they for someone he’s meeting here, or is he going to place them in front of a statue of the Blessed Virgin?
I never find out. I’m not able to stay for the full Mass, because it’s time for me to start heading to the airport.
It’s a Vegas mystery, really — just as it should be.
On my way out of town, I make one more brief stop at the Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer. It’s only a few minutes away from the airport. The 10 a.m. Mass is just starting.
The demographic looks pretty similar to yesterday’s Mass. Maybe a few more tourists, based on the number of backpacks I see people sporting.
This afternoon, there will be a few more Masses at the Shrine, including a Spanish Mass and a Traditional Latin Mass.
I’ve been told there’s a thriving Latin Mass community in Las Vegas. More than 600 people attended their Pentecost Mass last weekend.
Archbishop Thomas - back when he was Bishop Thomas - moved the community to the shrine after Pope Francis issued Traditionis custodes two years ago. Since it’s not a parish church, the papal restrictions still allow for the pre-Vatican II Mass to be celebrated there.
If I had more time, I would stay for the Latin Mass. I would love to see the juxtaposition of the mantillas and long skirts with the lights and glitter of the Vegas strip. And I think the families going to Latin Mass would be interesting to interview.
But I can’t stay. I have to get home for a previously-scheduled commitment later in the day. So instead, I call for an Uber to the airport and climb in.
I fumble with the door handle. The driver has to give me instructions to open the door. I’ve never been in a Tesla before.