United States

Las Vegas: Catholic faith amidst neon lights

The Archdiocese of Las Vegas encompasses 39,000 square miles comprising five counties in Nevada. It has one cathedral, one shrine, 28 parishes and five missions.

Gonzalo Meza-January 5, 2024-Reading time: 4 minutes
Las Vegas

Sign at the entrance of Las Vegas (Unsplash / Sung Shin)

Seen from the international space station, Las Vegas is one of the most illuminated spots on the planet. On land it is an ocean of neon lights that illuminate its streets, hotels and establishments. Along the downtown avenues, dozens of cars and people move from one place to another walking among imposing hotels or replicas of monuments such as the Eiffel Tower, the pyramids of Egypt or the canals of Venice, 24 hours a day. There are extravagant shows for all tastes, from circus arts to expensive Broadway productions featuring local and international artists.

However, the most notable feature of this city is its casinos. "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" announces a marquee welcoming visitors to the "entertainment capital of the world". Located in the Nevada desert, Las Vegas is synonymous with gambling and casino games inside sumptuous hotels. Inside, hundreds of people bet tens or even thousands of dollars on slot machines, table games, poker or roulette wheels. They hope to win, although most of the time they are disappointed. 

History of the city

The native peoples, particularly the "Paiutes" or "people of the desert" already inhabited some parts of the territory centuries before its founding. The city of Las Vegas was founded in 1905, when a new railroad station was opened linking this town with southern California and Salt Lake City.

Las Vegas grew gradually, first with small businesses and ranches and then starting in 1931 in the midst of the economic depression (the economic crisis of 1929-1933) with the construction of a water dam called "Hoover Dam". This new project attracted a considerable flow of workers to the area. In that same decade, Nevada's residency and divorce laws were liberalized, making it easier to obtain legal residency in Nevada.

As the years went by and the population increased, it was necessary to establish schools, infrastructure and establishments to provide services to the new settlers. Among these services was entertainment. The first gaming license was granted in 1931. Ten years later, in 1941, during the Second World War, the construction of the Las Vegas Army Air Field, today called "Nellis Air Force", began.

The decade of the 1940s also marked the appearance of numerous theme resorts (hotel-casinos), which multiplied after 1960. The proliferation of these establishments led to an enormous increase in population in the following decades. Las Vegas went from 556,000 inhabitants in 1985 to almost 3 million in the year 2022, in addition to 38 million tourists who visited the place in just one year, 2022. It is expected that the number of visitors will continue to increase every year.

Archdiocese of Las Vegas

The first Mass in the territory of what would become Nevada was celebrated by Franciscan priest Francisco Garces in 1776, in the town of Laughlin on the Colorado River. At that time the state of Nevada was part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (until the beginning of Mexican Independence in 1810). For 38 years it was part of the nascent Mexican Republic, but in 1848 the country lost a considerable part of its territory during the Mexican-American War. That is why until 1840 the territory of Nevada was under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Diocese of Sonora, then it passed to the Diocese of Monterey, California. In 1853, as Nevada became a U.S. territory, it came under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

Later, in 1886, the Apostolic Vicariate of Salt Lake City was established in the state of Utah, which also included the future Diocese of Las Vegas. It was in 1931 when the Diocese of Reno, Nevada was created with Thomas K. Gorman with its first bishop. In 1976 it acquired the name "Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas".

In the 1990s, due to population growth, the Holy See separated the dioceses of Reno and Las Vegas and thus the new Diocese of Las Vegas was established in 1995. Its first bishop was Daniel F. Walsh. Almost 30 years later, on May 30, 2023, Pope Francis elevated Las Vegas to the rank of archdiocese, leaving as suffragans the dioceses of Reno, Nevada and Salt Lake City, Utah. George Leo Thomas is the first Archbishop, although he had already begun his ministry as Bishop of Las Vegas in May 2018. 

The Archdiocese of Las Vegas encompasses 39,000 square miles comprising five counties in Nevada. It has one cathedral, one shrine, 28 parishes and five missions. The official count of the registered Catholic population is 620,000 (26% of the Las Vegas population) although the actual figure is higher because many Hispanic families, estimated at 200,000, do not register with their parishes. The Hispanic community represents 30% of its population, followed by the Asian community with 10%. In addition to Archbishop Thomas, Las Vegas has one auxiliary bishop and one bishop emeritus.

As of August 2023, there are a total of 87 priests, of whom 52 are active, 36 are incardinated, 22 are externs and 29 are priests of religious orders or institutes. There are also 32 active permanent deacons, 2 religious brothers and 8 religious sisters.

In the territory there is a Catholic hospital, with three branches; 16 social assistance centers and 8 schools where more than eleven thousand students study. Thousands of members join the church every year. In 2021, 3,520 children received the sacrament of baptism; 1,644 received first communion and 1,281 received confirmation. In that period, 419 couples received the sacrament of marriage. Today, these figures are higher because the data correspond to the pandemic period.

On June 29, 2023, the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Archbishop Thomas received the Pallium from Pope Francis at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. The ceremony for the imposition of the Pallium will take place on October 2 at the Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer in Las Vegas. The Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S., Cardinal Christophe Pierre, will be present. "I am deeply honored," said Archbishop Thomas upon receiving the Pallium in Rome, "It is a testament to the tireless work and dedication of our priests, deacons and lay people who contribute to our community. Their commitment and hard work have played an integral role in the growth and transformation of our archdiocese," said the prelate.

Gregory W. Gordon, auxiliary bishop of Las Vegas, said: "Las Vegas has grown in population and size since we became a diocese in 1995. It has also grown spiritually with an increase in baptisms, vocations to the priesthood and religious life. And we continue to build new parishes and welcome the newly ordained. This new archdiocese rank reflects that growth," Bishop Gordon said.

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