Roman Catholicism in Nevada

Roman Catholicism in Nevada

Churches in early Nevada history were often the focus of their members’ social lives. Roman Catholic churches additionally served as an anchor for their foreign-born parishioners and a source of charity for the needy. The Irish were the largest of the early groups immigrating to the Northern Nevada mining sites, leading to a dominance of foreign-born Irish clergy as their pastoral leaders. In later years, the Catholic German, Italian, Slavic, Basque, and Hispanic immigrants gave local churches a multi-ethnic composition. Over time, diocesan and religious order clergy, as well as communities of religious sisters, served the spiritual, educational, and, sometimes, medical needs of the Catholic population, which by 2008 comprised an estimated 24 percent of the state’s population.

Pre-Territory Era and an Irish Rush to the Comstock

Well before the Comstock mining boom in 1859, Spanish Catholic missionaries and explorers may have traversed through what was to become Nevada, but they left no permanent settlement. The institutional history of Roman Catholicism began in 1853, when the desolate area east of the Sierra Nevada became part of the Diocese of San Francisco. Seven years later it was subsumed under the Vicariate Apostolic of Marysville, California. It was headed by Father Eugene O’Connell, former Dean of Ireland’s All Hallows College whose seminary he used as a ready source of Irish priests.

In 1859 the “Rush to the Washoe” included two Irishmen, Peter O’Riley and Patrick McLaughlin, who were involved in the major ore strike. Thousands of their countrymen followed, making the Irish the largest ethnic group on the Comstock. Though they had met prejudice in many eastern cities, Irish Catholics flourished in Nevada, where their social life centered around church and fraternal societies. They were organized as the Fenians, the Irish Benevolent Society, the Knights of the Red Branch, and military companies such as the Emmet Guard in 1866—a foundation of the state’s National Guard.

Most Irishmen labored in the mines, but a few, like John W. Mackay, James C. Flood, and William S. O’Brien, amassed fortunes as officers of mining companies. Some of their assets remained in the state for the later development of higher education. Clarence Hungerford Mackay, John Mackay’s son, donated the Mackay School of Mines Building and Training Center to the University of Nevada, along with equipment and a $150,000 endowment. He later enlarged the School of Mines and the athletic stadium, and donated the Mackay Science Hall for Chemistry and Physics.

Church Buildings in the Boom Years

Father Hugh Gallagher built St. Theresa of Avila Church in Carson City and, later, Virginia City’s first Catholic church. Both blew down and were rebuilt—the latter by Father Patrick Manogue as St. Mary’s in the Mountains in 1862. St. Mary’s was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1877. Other Virginia City Catholic institutions served the wider community. St. Mary’s School and an orphanage were built by 1865 and St. Mary’s Hospital opened in 1877. All three were staffed by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul.

Parishes, missions, and stations arose anywhere Catholics congregated in significant numbers. The pattern of boom, population explosion, stabilization, and sometimes decline and abandonment set the pattern for the church in Nevada into the early twentieth century. Small communities were served on a regular but not a weekly basis by visiting priests, who said mass in private homes or rented facilities. Short-lived prosperity, as in Hamilton, resulted in the building of a serviceable structure, which rose and fell with the town. Austin’s St. Augustine Church, built of brick in 1865, survives as the oldest Catholic church in Nevada still standing in its original form. St. Brendan Church, built of stone in 1874, continues to serve as Eureka’s local parish church. St. Paul Church in Winnemucca was built in 1884 and lasted until its concrete replacement was dedicated sixty years later.

Economic Depression

From 1879 through the turn of the century, Nevada’s economy and population suffered a severe decline as the state’s major mining industry fell on hard times. Catholic congregations generally declined in size, and some churches closed altogether. There were several exceptions to this trend. The discovery of gold at Delamar in Lincoln County in 1891 attracted thousands of miners, many of whom were Catholic. A short-lived copper boom in the McGill-Ruth-Ely area in the early 1900s drew Catholic Slavs and Croatians (often called “Austrians”). They lived in company towns segregated by nationality, but they attended ethnically mixed Catholic churches, thereby hastening their assimilation. Elko County developed as the state’s foremost agricultural and ranching area, leading in 1916 to the purchase and relocation of a Presbyterian church, later dedicated as St. Joseph Catholic Church.

Lovelock, Battle Mountain, and Winnemucca on the Central Pacific Railroad remained stable and supported Catholic churches. Reno, the largest urban center on the railroad line, had its first Catholic church, St. Mary’s, in 1871. As the state’s economy faltered, some people from declining towns and played-out mining camps resettled in Reno. A rise in its Catholic population warranted a substantially larger church, St. Thomas Aquinas, dedicated in 1908. Nearly destroyed by fire in 1909, it was restored the following year.

The Goldfield boom erupted in 1906 and the town briefly overshadowed Reno as the largest in the state. A priest was soon on the scene to minister to its Catholics. A church building was started but was never completed beyond the basement before the hasty and unexpected decline in ore production.

Las Vegas Emerges

The Las Vegas town site was established in 1905. Its first Catholic church, St. Joan of Arc, was established in 1908. It remained the only Catholic parish in Southern Nevada until the late twentieth century and served several stations and missions in Southern Nevada, eastern California, southwestern Utah, and northern Arizona. The earliest parishioners of this church reflected a variety of nationalities and were among the most influential citizens of the city. They included the Von Tobels, Harmons, Graglias, Cragins, Mikuliches, Lorenzis, Foleys, and Mendozas.

Filipinos and other Asians, Hispanics, and non-European groups constituted a larger percentage of the Nevada population than ever before, and the majority of these communities settled in Las Vegas. Although many Hispanics belonged to evangelical or other Protestant denominations, the majority were Catholic. The hiring of African-Americans at the Basic Magnesium Plant in the 1940s and the growth of the Southern Nevada economy in recent years resulted in an increase in the number of African-American Catholics, which warranted a church, St. James the Apostle, on Las Vegas’ Westside. By the end of the twentieth century the parish membership included a large Hispanic and Filipino constituency.

Statewide Diocese of Reno and Its Constituencies

With gambling relegalized in 1931 and federal projects boosting the economy during the New Deal, World War II, and the Cold War, Nevada’s population increased significantly. Consequently, Nevada Catholicism was granted separate jurisdictional status on March 27, 1931, as the Diocese of Reno. Thomas Gorman was appointed its first bishop (1931–1952), and St. Thomas Aquinas designated as the cathedral church. At the time, there were an estimated 8,500 Catholics among Nevada’s 91,058 citizens, with a handful of diocesan priests to pastor them. They were additionally served by sisters and priests of religious orders. The Dominican Sisters of San Rafael already staffed St. Mary’s Hospital in Reno. Gorman recruited Sisters of the Holy Family and the Victory Knoll Sisters to shore up the religious education of children. Bishop Robert Dwyer (1952–1967) recruited religious orders of men, like the Viatorians, to run Manogue and Gorman high schools and a parish or two—most notably the Las Vegas Guardian Angel Shrine in 1963 (now the Diocese of Las Vegas Cathedral). Dwyer also invited the Irish Pallottine Fathers to open a school in Ely in 1951 and pastor a parish church in Reno. It was during Dwyer’s tenure that the Discalced Carmelite nuns established a monastery in southwest Reno. Franciscan Friars served Nevada Catholics in Reno and Las Vegas, while the Salvatorian Fathers were recruited to join the Manogue High School faculty in Reno.

Recognizing the significant growth of the Catholic population in Southern Nevada, the Diocese of Reno was renamed the Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas in 1976. In 1995, it was further divided into two dioceses. The Diocese of Reno, headed by Bishop Philip Straling, covered Northern Nevada. Daniel F. Walsh was named the first bishop of the Diocese of Las Vegas, which encompassed Clark, Esmeralda, Lincoln, Nye, and White Pine counties. As of 2008, the Diocese of Reno included twenty-eight parishes, eight missions and stations, a hospital, a day home, one high school, and four elementary schools. The Diocese of Las Vegas comprised thirty-four parishes, four missions, a hospital with three campuses, a medical center, one high school, and seven elementary schools.

Legal gambling in Nevada attracted Catholics from other parts of the country where the practice was against the law. Many became managers or owners of major casino hotel properties both in Reno and Las Vegas. Among those still in the business in 2008 were Bill Boyd, Michael Gaughan, and Jack Binion.

Public Service and Social Outreach

Nevada Catholics have been active in state politics consistent with their prevalence in the population. Native-born Emmett Derby Boyle was the first Catholic governor (1915–1922). Others to follow were Edward Peter Carville (1939–1945), Paul Laxalt (1967–1971), Donal Neil “Mike” O’Callaghan (1971–1979), and Robert Miller (1989–1999). Among Nevada Catholics serving in the U.S. Congress were Senators Patrick A. McCarran (1933–1954) and Paul Laxalt (1974–1987). Barbara Vucanovich (1983–1997) and James H. Bilbray (1987–1995) both were elected to several terms in the House of Representatives.

The Catholic Church helped to lead the fight against legalized prostitution in Clark County, which was banned in 1955. While most Catholics had come to terms with legal gambling as non-sinful as long as it did not interfere with one’s family and financial obligations, others criticized the church’s leadership for failing to address the abuses and social evils that could attend it. Bishops from Gorman to Straling had condemned the culture of divorce and gambling, while the livelihoods of some in their flocks depended on these engines of the economy. The church officials’ denunciations, however, had little effect.

Both Nevada dioceses sponsored a variety of social services for all in their communities. These included adoptions, low-cost housing, immigration and refugee services, day care, senior citizen programs, and St. Vincent’s dining rooms, shelters, and thrift stores. Individual Catholics were involved in a variety of intercultural and anti-poverty programs, such as the Catholic Worker Movement, an outreach program to the working poor; the Nevada Peace Test/Nevada Lenten Experience, which staged protests at the Nevada Test Site for nuclear disarmament; and the ecumenical Family Promise program, which provided temporary food and shelter on church properties for families in transition to economic stability. In addition, the state is part of Catholic Healthcare West (CHW), a system of hospitals and medical centers in California, Arizona, and Nevada. Saint Mary’s Hospital in Reno is now under the CHW umbrella. In 2008, CHW donated close to one billion dollars of community benefit and free care for the poor.

In 2008, the state's Catholic population was estimated to be 675,000.

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