The trend is not just removing what has come to be known as a church-related social staple on par with festivals and bake sales, but it signifies the decline of an important source of parish revenue.
“The crowds are just not interested,” said Monsignor Robert Mazur, rector at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Altoona. “At Cathedral, the numbers decreased by 50 percent of before.”
The Cathedral is one of a handful of local churches that no longer hosts bingo. Uncertain of the specific reasons as to why bingo regulars have lost interest in the game, Mazur cites the draw of Atlantic City, N.J.; Charleston, W.Va.; or Pennsylvania allowing slot machines as possibilities. Regardless, bingo games have ceased to be played at the Cathedral since September 2007.
With dwindling bingo crowds, other churches in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown have had to cut back on weekly bingo events and ultimately have experienced cutbacks in revenue.
Sacred Heart in Altoona is one of the churches affected. In 2004, the church offered two nights of bingo because of its popularity, said Monsignor Stanley Carson, pastor at Sacred Heart. But during the past two years, the church has reduced bingo to one night.
General admission to Sacred Heart’s Sunday evening bingo is $5. The smallest package for patrons is $20, with the largest being $30. On average, 75 to 80 people attend the weekly event, said Doug Dell, bingo manager for the church.
“That has been a great decrease,” he said.
This decrease in attendance and number of bingo days has been large enough to cut the parish’s fundraising revenue by about 40 percent. In the 2003-04 fiscal year, fundraising at Sacred Heart, which includes but is not limited to bingo, brought in $50,000. By 2005-06, it was reduced to $29,700, Carson said.
During the past two years, Carson estimates that bingo has brought in $20,000. “As with most churches, bingo revenue goes toward Catholic education,” he said.
Although there has been a decline in attendance, Carson believes that bingo is stable at Sacred Heart.
“The economy is challenging. People only have so much disposable income,” he said. “People go where the prize is. The larger attendance, the larger the prize.”
A dedicated bingo player for 38 years, Glennis Savino of Altoona has noticed the decline in attendance and shift to locations with bigger jackpots.
“At certain times of the month, especially close to the end, there are not as many people,” Savino said. A former regular at Cathedral’s bingo, Savino now plays three nights a week: Tuesday nights at St. Rose of Lima and Thursdays and Saturdays at St. Patrick in Newry. “Both get a good crowd and pay good money with big jackpots,” she said.
According to the Pennsylvania Charitable Bingo Law, the legality of bingo and its prizes are regulated by the state. These regulations focus on who may host bingo and how large the stakes can be.
‘‘The state authorizes certain entities — if they qualify — to pay a fee for a bingo license,” Blair County Treasurer James Carothers said.
The general law is that any association for a charitable or civic purpose, including volunteer fire companies, religious, charitable, fraternal, veterans and civic associations, can apply for a bingo license.
Licenses cost $100 a year or associations can purchase a three-day limited occasion license once a year for $15.
In terms of charting the revenue from bingo, Carothers said those with licenses do not need to report back to the county treasurer’s office.
“It’s strictly a license issue,” he said.
In Blair County, there have been 13 regular bingo licenses purchased to date in 2008. It is a decrease from 2007, when 15 of the 35 for that year were purchased by April. In 2006, a total of 41 associations received regular licenses, Carothers said.
Those licenses also regulate the prizes awarded each game.
Under the Bingo Law, the prize for one game of bingo cannot exceed $250, except for the jackpot game, which cannot exceed $2,000. In a calendar day, no more than $4,000 can be awarded.
In Altoona, the Bavarian Hall has become a popular venue with bigger return for bingo-goers, at times drawing a crowd of church bingo regulars, such as players from Sacred Heart.
“Big bingo is offered at the Bavarian every other Sunday,” said Dell, who has followed in his father’s footsteps as Sacred Heart’s bingo manger. “I can tell by the crowd.”
But to those who love playing the game and the church hall atmosphere that comes with it, bingo is anything but a passing pastime.
“The customers we have are diehard,” Dell said. “Sometimes you see different faces, but there are the same people all the time. It’s something to do.”
(Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec)
Nanci Hall of Altoona plays bingo Sunday at the Sacred Heart Social Center at Sixth Avenue and 21st Street.