Due to declining attendance, tighter smoking laws and increased competition for the gambling dollar, St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Elmira has discontinued bingo after more than 40 years.
The last Monday-night bingo game to be held at St. Charles Borromeo took place July 26. This leaves St. Casimir — which forms a two-parish cluster with St. Charles Borromeo — as the only Catholic parish in Elmira still operating a bingo night.
According to Anne Bremer, business manager for the cluster, St. Casimir still averages nearly 100 participants for Saturday-night bingo. On the other hand, St. Charles Borromeo’s attendance had dropped to an average of about 40 people on Monday nights.
“To make some profit you need 60 or 70 players,” remarked Father Eugene Dobosz, parish administrator for St. Casimir/St. Charles Borromeo.
Father Dobosz was faced with making a decision by Aug. 1 to renew a six-month bingo license for St. Charles. He opted against it, saying that bingo had at one time produced $1,800 per month for the parish but that the bingo committee “came to me and they said they cannot make that promise anymore.”
“It’s one of those things that was going to happen — how long do you prolong it?” Bremer said, noting that “after paying the $1,000 prize, some nights weren’t even making a profit. The bingo committee tried all sorts of gimmicks — free turkeys, computer games, early bird and progressive games — but it didn’t help.”
Father Dobosz said half of St. Charles Borromeo’s bingo participants disappeared a year ago when a new state smoking law — outlawing smoking in all public buildings — took effect. According to Bremer, “Ninety percent of your people who came to bingo smoked.”
Also crippling bingo was the outgrowth of casinos in the Niagara Falls and Syracuse areas. These venues are easily accessible by car and also available through numerous bus tours offered out of Elmira. Bremer pointed out that several tour incentive packages offer credit for meals and gambling tokens, adding up to about the same amount that one might have spent in a night of bingo.
“It’s unfortunate that it had to close, but I think there are a lot of things that have hurt bingo all over,” said Jackie Ermold, who served as a bell-jar worker at bingo. She observed that several parishes in Chemung County have been forced to discontinue bingo in recent years.
Ermold is one of several people in her family who were involved as bingo volunteers. According to Bremer, families such as the Ermolds deserve immense credit for many continuous years of service, even as volunteers in general had become increasingly hard to find in recent years.
“There have been three generations in some of these families to keep this going. Some of the families have grown up with it,” Bremer said. “Some people are very upset. They worked very, very faithfully for many years,” Father Dobosz added.
Bingo revenue helped support not only general expenses of the parish, but also numerous projects and improvements. Another major source of revenue was derived from the kitchen, operated by several members of the Altar and Rosary Society. By serving sandwiches, beverages and desserts each week, the society generated income that was appropriated to numerous charities in Chemung County and beyond.
Whether the Altar and Rosary Society can maintain this support without bingo is uncertain, said Roseann Swarthout, who served as society secretary last year but was not a bingo volunteer. “There would be some concern about how we would be able to keep up the level,” she said.
In the absence of bingo, Father Dobosz said that “we need to find some other sources to make money.” Bremer said the parish had already begun looking at alternative forms of fundraising after bingo attendance began dropping, so the discontinuation of bingo didn’t come as a shock in the financial sense. “It was a dying thing and we were well aware of it,” she said. “This has been in the works a couple of years.”