Friday night bingo at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church used to be as regular as coleslaw with a fish fry.
Bingo once generated $25,000 to $30,000 a year for the small Catholic parish. “It was wonderful because it was easy to set up. It ran itself,” said the Rev. Donald Lutz, pastor at the Old First Ward parish.
But by 2011, regular attendance slipped from about 120 people to fewer than 75. The Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino, located less than a mile from the O’Connell Avenue church, lured away some of the players. A nearby organization switched its bingo night to the same night as Our Lady of Perpetual Help’s and offered bigger jackpots, the pastor said. That year, the parish pulled the plug.
“It’s just not there anymore,” he said. “There was nothing we could do.”
Once a mainstay of church basements, VFW halls and senior centers, bingo is dying in Western New York. In the past 15 years, bingo receipts in Erie and Niagara counties fell nearly 75 percent, according to the New York State Gaming Commission. Over the same 15 years, the number of organizations offering bingo dropped 80 percent.
Some blame the casinos that opened in Niagara Falls and Buffalo, and the gambling expansion at Hamburg Raceway. Others put part of the blame on the state ban on smoking that took effect in 1997.
In February, Tonawandas Post 264, American Legion, in the City of Tonawanda, shut down one of the area’s longest-running bingo games after nearly 80 years due to declining attendance.
Other bingo operators say they have seen revenues fall by as much as 20 percent in the past year or two.
And the larger, glitzier Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino, which opened in August, threatens to cut further into the bingo revenues for area charitable organizations.
“I do think they impact us. People go where they think they can win big,” said the Rev. Richard Jedrzejewski, pastor of Assumption Church in Black Rock. “I still think your chances of winning at bingo are greater than at a casino, but the amounts are probably smaller.”
Bingo remains a serious business in many parts of Western New York – both for players and for the nonprofit organizations that count on the proceeds to balance their books.
Assumption still does reasonably well, usually making $4,000 a week from its three bingo outings. It needs every penny of it to support a large church complex at Amherst and Grant streets.
“It’s a necessity here. There’s no way we would survive without it and pay all of our bills,” said Jedrzejewski.
Bingo proceeds help Blessed Trinity pay for utilities and maintenance of a historic church building on Leroy Avenue, said the Rev. George Reger, the longtime pastor.
Volunteers, many in their 70s and 80s, spend several hours a week staffing bingo nights, and some parishioners have inquired occasionally about better options for the church to raise money, Reger said.
“I said, ‘Give me an alternative, and I’ll accept it immediately,’ ” he said. “It would be nice not to have to do this, but I’ve never been foolish enough to say we should not have bingo.”
“Let’s put it this way: The other parishes that have done that are now closed,” he added.
Catholic parishes, schools and Knights of Columbus groups have been strongholds of bingo playing in Western New York since the 1960s.
But even parishes with long histories of hosting bingo struggle over whether to continue it.
Poor turnout forced Our Lady of Hope on the West Side to cancel bingo over the summer. It was brought back in recent weeks, but the parish is discussing the future of bingo there.
Yet, the game persists in pockets of Western New York and other areas of the state.
Area residents spent nearly $9 million in 2012 on bingo games at 72 sites in Erie and Niagara counties. Statewide, more than $219 million was wagered on bingo in 2012.
“Bingo is better because your chances of winning are better,” said Ernestine Mays, who has played bingo at Assumption for years. “A casino, it could eat your money up in a few seconds.”
Millie Alagna and her sister, Mary Saraceno, were among the 180 or so people who assembled on a recent Tuesday inside the Assumption parish hall.
Alagna and Saraceno said they each spent about $20 on boards and “bonus ball” games that can deliver larger jackpots. The games last until at least 3 p.m., sometimes longer.
“Our motto is win, win, win,” Alagna, 86, said with a laugh. She set out a lucky charm – a tiny Buddha statue – next to her bingo boards.
Saraceno, 96, brought along a small brass elephant and an angel for good luck.
“It’s an afternoon out. We spend three, four hours together. I enjoy my sister’s company,” she said.
But Saraceno also made a confession.
“We like the casino better,” she said.
Assumption took the unusual step of hosting an afternoon bingo, after its Tuesday evening bingo fizzled out years ago. The midday games have become the parish’s most popular, particularly among senior citizens who prefer to stay home at night.
A recent report by the Coalition Against Gambling in New York warned that opening more casinos across the state would result in tens of thousands of new problem gamblers and dramatically increase socioeconomic costs from problem gambling, such as counseling, bankruptcies and public welfare programs.
The Catholic bishops of New York State also released a statement recently urging voters to consider carefully whether to amend the State Constitution to allow broader casino gambling. A referendum will be on the ballot in the general election Nov. 5.
“When gambling as a revenue stream becomes overly prevalent in a society, the risks associated with problem gambling multiply. With their flashing lights, free-flowing alcoholic drinks, all-night hours and generally intoxicating atmosphere, casinos are more likely than other gambling options to lead to bad decisions and catastrophic losses for patrons, particularly those prone to problem or compulsive gambling,” the bishops’ statement reads.
Bingo rarely is thought of as anything more than a fun game for older people.
But it can be just as dangerous as slot machines or other types of gaming, said Marlene A. Schillinger, president of Jewish Family Service, which operates a counseling program for problem gamblers.
“Bingo is addictive, and people don’t see it as addictive. It is definitely a problem for some people,” she said. “Bingo is not entirely innocent. And when you’re doing it in a school or a church or a temple, what are the lessons you’re teaching your congregants or your kids?”
But some pastors call bingo more than just a money grab to make ends meet. It helps bring people together for socializing.
“It really is a fun night for them,” said the Rev. James Monaco, pastor of St. Katharine Drexel parish in Lovejoy, which hosts bingo on Friday nights. “That social part of it is the more important thing.”
Jean Kusmierz, of West Seneca, agrees. She meets up weekly with a group of women at Assumption, many who formerly taught at the parish school. Kusmierz said the bingo is secondary.
“I come here because my friends are here, and we have a fantastic time. We come early and stay late,” she said.
Monaco began attending the St. Katharine Drexel bingo games a couple of years ago to make connections with people from the neighborhood whom he might not see in church on Saturday or Sunday.
“Church isn’t even on their radar. I’m surprised by how many young people I see – people in their 20s, 30s and 40s,” he said. “It used to be the joke that it was something to keep grandma off the streets. Definitely not here.”
In some cases, bingo in the basement has been a gateway to prayer in the pews, he said.
“I just don’t want them to ask me to bless their boards. And so far, no one has,” Monaco said.