For more than 20 years, the largest Catholic church in Las Vegas has gone largely unnoticed by the valley’s nearly 650,000 Catholics.
With a seating capacity of 2,200, the Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer is about 50 percent larger than any other Catholic church in the region.
But on the average Sunday, the pews are filled primarily with tourists seeking to reconnect with God.
For most locals, the shrine draws their attention only when it hosts high-profile funerals, such as for singer Robert Goulet. On Sundays, they attend their parish church.
Resort casinos tower over the low-slung white chapel, which is nestled behind Hooters Hotel at 55 E. Reno Ave. Its location reflects a keen eye by then Bishop Daniel Walsh, who oversaw the combined Diocese of Reno-Las Vegas from 1987 through the establishment of Las Vegas as its own diocese in 1995.
In the early ’90s, Walsh recognized a need to serve the burgeoning tourist population that was already straining the capacity of Guardian Angel Cathedral, which serves as the diocese’s center, just off the Strip north of Encore. And a neglected patch of land on Reno Avenue seemed just the right fit.
The diocese had $1.5 million in its construction fund and launched a fundraising campaign seeking an additional $2 million. The seven-acre site cost $2.7 million, and local powerhouse Marnell Corrao agreed to design and build the 26,000-square-foot house of worship for $3.5 million.
Casino executives as well as small donors opened their wallets, and construction began in 1992. But visiting Catholics yearning for Sunday Mass couldn’t wait.
A temporary chapel was set up in the former Hacienda, the Rev. Robert Stoeckig said. It wasn’t an ideal blending of messages, recalled the man who now serves as vicar general of the diocese. But the nearly two-year stay at the Hacienda was effective. Escalating attendance proved the wisdom of the concept of serving the south end of the Strip, which was then growing rapidly.
It was an exciting time in Las Vegas. The Excalibur had opened in 1990, across from the Tropicana, extending the resort corridor south. The year 1993 saw the opening of Luxor, which added two additional towers in 1996. And in 1997, New York-New York would come on the scene.
The tourism industry was growing southward and the diocese was ready. On Feb. 2, 1993, Bishop Walsh led the dedication and consecration of the Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer.
Stoeckig spent more than a decade as rector at the shrine and said seeing 1,500 for a Mass wasn’t uncommon.
The shrine’s blend of architecture and art — from stained glass to bronze sculptures — provided the wow factor that Las Vegas tourists craved. And the location was an instant hit.
Stoeckig recalled the divine experiences and the ones that serve as reminders that the shrine is quite a different place from a parish church.
In the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Stoeckig said, “the shrine had between 500 and 1,000 people every day for Mass. Many tourists, especially from New York, who were stranded because the airspace had been closed for several days, turned to the church as a place of refuge and prayer as they worried about their family back in New York, Washington, D.C., and near the crash site in Pennsylvania.
“I was very happy we had a church so close to the people who needed it at a time of great pain. Throughout the day, there was a large steady stream of people coming for prayer and, most days, that reached a peak at the time the midday Mass was scheduled. As a priest, I will never forget the faces and the stories of the people who turned to us in those days, who found a place for prayer and comfort so close to the resort corridor where they were staying.”
Stoeckig acknowledged that leading the shrine had its peculiarities. Since the shrine has no parish, no recurring congregation, it is barred from performing marriages or baptisms. That eases the workload on the priest, who also has few emergency calls.
But the shrine’s tourists sometimes present their own challenges. On Christmas Eve, for example, there is no midnight Mass. It’s a matter of crowd control concerns, Stoeckig said. Instead, a 9 p.m. service is held. On New Year’s Eve, Las Vegas police use the 300-car parking lot as a staging area for police and emergency services.
And then there’s the unique dynamic in the confessional. Stoeckig said he heard fewer confessions of Las Vegas-based transgressions than he expected. But he was surprised by the number of confessions that began with an acknowledgement that the person had not been to confession in years, sometimes decades. The absolute anonymity of talking to someone who had never heard your voice — and likely would never hear it again — made a difference, Stoeckig observed.
Today, the 21-year-old shrine is undergoing a makeover under the leadership of Monsignor Francis Vivona. He came to Las Vegas in 1985 and has served in a handful of local parishes, including as pastor of Our Lady of Las Vegas.
Donations to the shrine’s building fund have allowed for installation of a new roof, new flooring and an extensive painting program. Upgrades to the cooling system and the sound system are next, followed by renovation of the pews.
“The air conditioning is an ongoing problem,” Vivona said. “Each year, a unit is usually replaced to keep things up to date and new. The most welcomed improvement is the sealing of the windows. New frames with seals were added in order to allow the heat not to raise the temperature in the shrine so that Liturgies could be celebrated in the evening when the sun is setting in the west.”
A campaign is also underway to build a memorial walkway. For $500, tourists or locals can place a stone honoring a loved one near the statue of Jesus and the children. The first six stones have been placed, with more on the way.
While the shrine is a uniquely Las Vegas attraction, it is not unique as the church’s approach to serving tourist populations, Vivona pointed out. Orlando, for example, has the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe. And others dot the globe.
The Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer also hosts a popular gift shop. But catching it open during its summer hours can be tricky. It’s open between 1 and 1:30 each afternoon, plus 3-5 p.m. on Saturdays. On Sundays, it’s open after each Mass, closing at 1:45 p.m.