Churches worried about what casinos will mean for Bingo games

If casinos get their cha-ching, then local church Bingo games fear their cards may suffer a blackout.

Speaking rather frankly, Father Michael Guarino of St. Anthony’s Church told the Journal this week that he has some “very serious concerns” about the effects of a casino on his church’s weekly Bingo night.

“To be honest, I do have some concerns about this,” said Guarino. “Maybe it’s unfounded, but if you have a casino close by, people will only come so often and players only have so much they will spend. Bingo is very important for us to meet our budget. People may choose to go to the casino instead of our Bingo.”

Oddly enough, in the often-reported debate on casino gaming, church Bingo has been largely omitted – if not ignored – in the discussion.

Packed House

On any given Monday, the parking lot at St. Anthony’s is packed with vehicles.

Inside, the church basement is set up with tables running long ways. There are tables on the stage, tables in the alcoves and even tables up front by the number caller.

At those tables are more than 500 people a week, all of them playing Bingo with the hopes of winning some money, and with the goal of socializing with friends and other parishioners.

Players come from Revere, of course, but many also come from out-of-town. There are regulars from Lynn, Danvers, Peabody and Chelsea.

Church volunteers scurry around the floor helping these players get set up, collecting their money, selling raffle tickets and checking winners.

“N-43, N-43,” calls Father Mike from up on the stage.

He calls a few more numbers and, suddenly, an experienced player yells out the magic words, “Bingo.”

After checking the card, the woman who won takes around $300 in winnings.

“That’s a good lollipop,” calls out Father Mike.

It’s all part of a sub-culture that has existed for decades, beginning sometime in the 1930’s when churches began looking to Bingo – or Beano – for fundraising dollars.

Nowadays, Bingo games fall under the purview of the State Lottery. Officials at the lottery said that they do regulate and tax the games. Any recognized charity can get approvals and a license to run a game.

State laws govern who can play, when the games can be offered, and what prizes can be awarded. Occasionally, regulators come out to check up on how the game is running, they said.

Once a week at St. Anthony’s, young people, older people, rich people and poor people play alongside one another.

They socialize.

They have fun.

They try to win.

More than anything, though, the church stays on solid financial grounds, especially at St. Anthony’s where they run one of the largest Bingo games in the surrounding area.

Severe Budget Buster

With some major competition possibly opening up down the road – and maybe even offering Bingo games (Foxwoods offers a very popular Bingo game) – that subculture could disappear.

More importantly, the revenue to the church could disappear.

“It will affect our budget very severely,” said Guarino. “We run on a shoestring here, though many might think St. Anthony’s is this wealthy church, but we just barely make it. I just met with my Finance Committee and for 2009-2010 we’re $16,000 in the red.”

And that’s with Bingo, he said.

He estimated that Bingo brings in around $165,000 a year to the church, which is some 20 percent of their budget.

He said that their game already took a hit a few years ago when the city and state passed new laws banning smoking inside the building.

“Obviously I wouldn’t want to advocate smoking or anything, but we had probably 20 to 25 percent of our players leave when that happened,” he said. “There are just some people who want to gamble and smoke at the same time and they’ll leave if they can’t. I know because I saw it firsthand.”

The only other Bingo game in Revere is at St. Mary’s on Washington Avenue, but that game is much smaller in size. Father Paul Aveni said he is not so worried about taking a hit on the Bingo.

“[A casino] will definitely have an impact on our Bingo,” he said. “Our Bingo isn’t as big as St. Anthony’s though. We don’t really depend on the income like they do. I’m not concerned. That’s sort of the icing on our cake, not anything we depend on.”

That’s not the story at St. Anthony’s, and probably also at several of the other big games in the area – such as the Lynn Knights of Columbus or the Everett Immaculate Conception Parish.

“I don’t know how many churches have Bingo, but certainly the ones that do will be affected [by a casino],” said Guarino. “We are concerned.”

To Stay or Go

Certainly the church thinks that they’ll be missing some players – and the money they bring in on a weekly basis – but what about the players.

Are they enticed by a casino?

A survey of the crowd this Monday at St. Anthony’s was a mixed bag.

Some were adamant about continuing to come to the church basement every Monday night no matter what happens at Suffolk Downs.

Others indicated they would be out of the St. Anthony’s game quicker than Father Mike could say “B-12.”

However, a good many said they think they would stay, but that with free food, drinks and other amenities at the casino – they might end up there more often.

“We like casinos,” said Dottie Fennell, a semi-regular player at St. Anthony’s. “I’d prefer a casino to this game.”

And when asked if she would regularly attend a casino at Suffolk Downs that had Bingo, she said enthusiastically, “Oh yes.”

Others from her table were also very enthusiastic about the idea.

However, long-time friends Linda Quinlan, Teri Lorette, and Rose Markos called the St. Anthony’s game their “regular Monday meeting” and their “therapy session.” They come weekly from Saugus and Peabody.

They said they like casinos and would probably attend a casino at Suffolk Downs, but not for Bingo.

“I would still come here,” said Quinlan. “I don’t think a casino is a bad idea, but Bingo is something different and it’s very social. You spend the night playing Bingo for a small amount of money and you get to visit.”

Said Markos, “This is our night out. At a casino, it’s just win, win, win. Here, it’s different. We should just give St. Anthony’s our money. We just come to see each other mostly.”

Marie Wall of Chelsea – another weekly player – said she didn’t foresee a mass exodus from the church game.

“A lot of people come for the camaraderie and they’re attached to a certain place or a certain parish,” she said. “They know if they go to the casino, they would be just one of many people – another number.”

But many wonder if such camaraderie would simply take a walk down the street, changing venues to a newer and nicer casino where there would be gambling, free food, restaurants, spas and free drinks.

Can There Be a Compromise

Mayor Tom Ambrosino sympathized with the churches, saying that they ought to have a talk with potential casino operators.

“They should go pay a visit to Mr. [Richard] Fields (Suffolk Downs owner), that seems to be what everyone is doing,” said the mayor.

Guarino said that he plans on taking a pro-active approach to the problem.

“We can’t afford to lose that Bingo,” said Father Mike. “I hope to maybe talk to the right people in the near future about this to see if we can’t get something done. I think we have an extremely valid point.”

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