Las Vegas Sun

October 24, 2014

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History:

100 years of service

St. Joan of Arc celebrates distinction as oldest Catholic church and parish in Las Vegas

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Sam Morris

St. Joan of Arc Church, built in 1939 to replace the original chapel, can accommodate 400. While 400 families are registered with the parish, Mass attendance swells with tourists from nearby casinos.

When Las Vegas was founded by a 1905 railroad land auction, the town’s estimated 70 Catholics had to rely for several years on occasional services conducted at various locations by visiting clergy.

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Saint Joan of Arc Roman Catholic Church on Casino Center Boulevard in downtown Las Vegas is dwarfed by commercial buildings.

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Lynda Ballard and the Rev. Timothy Wehn enjoy talking about the 100-year history of St. Joan of Arc parish.

Beyond the Sun

Those faithful were finally rewarded when Las Vegas was given its first parish on Oct. 4, 1908, by Salt Lake City Diocese Bishop Lawrence Scanlan. It took another two years to raise the money to build the town’s first Catholic house of worship — a 40-seat chapel. But there was comfort in having the parish recognized.

The parish of St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church celebrates its 100th birthday today, a milestone that its pastor, the Rev. Timothy Wehn, credits to the “continuity of faith” displayed by parishioners, tourists and the homeless, and the stable leadership of a devoted clergy.

While many of Las Vegas’ buildings over the years have been imploded to make way for new structures, St. Joan of Arc Church, in one form or another, has since 1910 stood at 315 S. Casino Center Blvd. in downtown Las Vegas as a symbol of what Wehn calls “the gospel of hope” for all Catholics.

In addition to the parish’s reaching a milestone this year, St. Joan of Arc’s affiliated school, St. Joseph’s Elementary at 1300 Bridger Ave., is observing its 60th anniversary, making it a busy time for celebrations at the church.

“People have come to see us as a home for the hope and the light and as a celebration of our continuity of faith,” said Wehn, who in 2001 became the 14th pastor of St. Joan parish. Four hundred families are registered with the church, but it also draws up to 1,000 tourists each Sunday for services.

The modern St. Joan of Arc Church, which opened in 1939 and stands in the shadows of the old Clark County Bridger Building, celebrated the parish’s 100th birthday Mass on April 27 so Bishop Joseph Pepe of the Diocese of Las Vegas could attend. The newer church accommodates 400 people.

Wehn said in Las Vegas’ infancy, Bishop Scanlan met the spiritual needs of Las Vegas’ tiny Catholic population by riding here by horse-drawn wagon — and later by taking the train — to celebrate weekly Masses.

Wehn said Scanlan decided to name the first Las Vegas parish after the divinely inspired French heroine of the Hundred Years War because the blistering hot Las Vegas summers reminded him of how Joan suffered martyrdom by being burned at the stake by the British in 1431.

The decision was a bold one because Joan of Arc was not made a saint by the Vatican until 1920. Scanlan chose the name anticipating she would be canonized despite protests from the British.

Today an estimated 700,000 Catholics live in Southern Nevada. Among them, about 71,000 families — representing about 250,000 individuals — are registered with the diocese’s 27 parishes.

The lure of newer Catholic churches has diminished St. Joan’s numbers after they peaked in the late 1940s, but many of the faithful remain fiercely loyal to the granddaddy of local Catholic facilities — including the children and grandchildren of pioneering parishioners.

“It is a very comforting place to worship,” said 70-year-old Catherine Trinaystich, who was born in the old Ambassador Motel downtown and baptized at St. Joan of Arc in 1938.

“I think people remain loyal to this church because it has that 1948 feel to it — it’s small and has a great sense of community,” said St. Joseph’s principal, Lynda Ballard, who drives every Sunday to Mass at St. Joan’s from her home in Henderson, passing several other churches along the way.

Wehn said downtown casinos have done an excellent job making sure their Catholic guests are aware of the times of St. Joan’s services, which has helped keep the church’s finances strong — many tourists drop bills and coins into the collection plate.

Events marking the 100th anniversary of St. Joan of Arc parish have been ongoing since the start of 2008 and will continue through the Christmas celebrations in December, Wehn said.

The next observation is a rosary Tuesday at St. Joseph’s School to give thanks for the parish’s first 100 years and the school’s first 60 years of operation.

Wehn looks ahead to even bigger challenges for St. Joan of Arc and the Catholic Church in general in the next 100 years.

“We have to encourage people to return regularly to the city’s first parish and we have to reach the younger Catholic tourists who might not be as diligent as the older tourists in attending Mass while on vacation,” he said.

But the tourists who do go to Mass are generous in their offerings, Wehn said.

“They have always come through to help our poor, though I often remind them (from the pulpit) to donate 10 percent if they hit a casino slot jackpot during their stay in Las Vegas.”

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