Thursday, October 9, 1997
St. William quits gambling
on bingo night

The Cincinnati Enquirer

> St. William Church, a most revered and traditional Price Hill parish, has discontinued bingo. Tonight, they'll put away the cards and the markers and 60 years of tradition. This is big.

There was a time when this announcement would have put a crater not only in the church budget, but in the social lives of its parishioners. When the games started in the 1930s, players jammed the basement and overflowed onto the stairways.

A friend remembers going there with his grandmother 50 years ago and being allowed to tend a card, put plastic chips on the numbers called and count the winnings. Lots of chatter, lots of smoke, lots of fun. Not a lot of money.

But it's not your grandma's bingo game anymore.

The big rip-off

The beginning of the end of the gentle game of chance probably was the ''instants,'' or dollar pull-tab tickets. These things, also known as ''rip-offs,'' have as much in common with the game of bingo as shooting craps does with Parcheesi.

The Rev. Philip Seher (pronounced SAY-er) of St. William, a handsome and imposing man, says in his big voice that he thinks maybe he owes the gambling boats a thank-you note.

''What used to be a social night out has become a major gambling enterprise,'' he says. ''We have become uneasy, seeing some of the spending that goes on.''

Members of the church were warned Sept. 28 that bingo was losing money. The seven-member parish council after about 40 minutes' discussion Tuesday night voted unanimously to shut it down.

Just two years ago, bingo contributed $87,000 to the church's million-dollar budget. In 1996, that was down to $35,000, and as of July 1, the church had lost $3,000 on its bingo operations.

''The west side,'' he says ''is just a little closer to the riverboats. The larger spenders are going there.''

It used to be an evening when somebody might drop $12 or $15. ''Now, somebody might lose a couple hundred.''

A member of Gamblers Anonymous says, ''Some women take the rent money or the welfare check and go to bingo. Bingo sneaks up on them. They don't think of it as gambling, and the next thing they know they're hooked. It's not the bingo that gets you in trouble - it's the rip-offs.''

Father Seher says tonight, players will be asked whether they want to play old-fashioned bingo. No instants. Just B-14, G-58 and coveralls and diagonals. Maybe even plastic disks. But no rip-offs. And no smoking, a year-old policy some say contributed to the decline.

Taking up the slack

Helen Wurzbacher, who has been playing bingo at St. William for 50 years, says she'll probably take her business to St. Lawrence Church, another Price Hill landmark. Its priest, the Rev. Ralph Westerhoff, says he has no plans to discontinue bingo.

''We have bingo Tuesday and Sunday, and it is an important part of our budget.''

Have the riverboats hurt your bingo business?

''We have bingo Tuesday and Sunday, and it is an important part of our budget,'' he repeated.

How much money do you make from bingo? He said it was none of my business and rang off before I could explain that we are all God's children, even the working press.

Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery's office was considerably more forthcoming. Their records show that St. Lawrence Church's bingo operation grossed $722,815 last year, including $370,100 in instant tickets. Hamilton County was third in the state, behind Cuyahoga and Franklin, in gross bingo receipts. Of our $82,518,798 in reported gross receipts, more than $63 million is in rip-offs.

St. William's pastor says he is hoping to replace bingo money with direct giving. He came to this church seven years ago and admires his flock as ''faith-filled people who are on the mark. They know how to struggle and live. And they help each other. Some people may be disappointed that we will no longer have bingo night, but no one really defends bingo as it is now.''

So tonight is the last night for bingo at St. William, and I think Grandma would approve.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.