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282: Guardian Angel Cathedral, Las Vegas, Nevada
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Guardian Angel, Las Vegas, Nevada
Mystery Worshipper: The Traveler
The church: Guardian Angel Cathedral, Las Vegas, Nevada
Denomination: Roman Catholic
The building: A very modern A-frame built in 1963, with an exterior mosaic depicting a Guardian Angel and three figures labeled Penance, Prayer and Peace. Dramatic triangular recesses frame the stained glass windows, which also serve as the stations of the cross. The mural above the altar seems to depict men flying through the air. Maybe they are swooping angels? I mused. Maybe the largest figure is Jesus?
The neighbourhood: Disneyland for Adults. Leaving the airport, I passed a billboard for the Hard Rock Casino's slot machines. "Looser than your girlfriend!" The sign proclaimed. Turning right at the Statue of Libertine, I saw that much of the strip has been torn down and replaced since I worked here in the early nineties. Las Vegas is a huge, ephemeral backlot, the visitor an actor in his or her own private play. In my fantasy, I could star as a highroller or the sexy and sodden vamp of a moodily-lit theme bar. I could live out the delusion that "All I Can Eat" will not follow me when I depart. Craving companionship, I am only a phone call away from close and personal contact with a "Hottest Babe Entertainer." Angela, in my room in 20 minutes, promises an advertisement handed out by a man on the boulevard... But if you don't want to gamble, drink, overeat, smoke or cavort with naked strangers, there just isn't a whole lot to do in Las Vegas. When I worked here the locals suggested fishing at Lake Mead, camping in the desert. Nobody ever suggested that I take a walk – everything is hugely far away, an inducement to stay put. The grand scale of the hotels and casinos makes them seem so much closer than they are – after a half hour walking along the boulevard I find the view hasn't changed much. But here's an idea: I can go to church. Wedged in between a strip mall and the new Red Dragon Casino are two masses daily and nine on weekends, with confession before each. And so I decide to enter Lent in Sin City.
The cast: The celebrant, Fr. William (a visiting Franciscan from San Francisco), several deacons who also served as ushers and collected the offering, a cantor dressed in a mustard-colored choir robe, plus a lay reader who also set up the altar before the service.
What was the name of the service?
5.00pm Mass, Ash Wednesday.

How full was the building?
The church was almost empty when I entered at 4:40. I sat close to the front next to window XII, which was dedicated by Mr and Mrs Danny Thomas. To the left of Jesus crucified with two thieves, Samson, in chains, pulls down columns while surfing on his bright orange short board. To the lower right, Jesus lays dead on his aqua long board while an ominous blue and black figure looms over him. The stained glass artist hails from Los Angeles (circa 1966) so I might be correct in interpreting a surfboard motif. After 10 minutes of marveling I turned back to look at the church again – and found it was packed (the building holds 1,100).

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Guardian Angel is primarily a parish for tourists. I encountered a gift shop to the right, and a line for the confessionals to the left, but no greeters.

Was your pew comfortable?
I shared a short wooden pew, sleek and blondish in keeping with the modern theme, with a man in a brown leather jacket and an Asian couple with two toddlers. The pews were tightly spaced. As I sat down after the Gospel reading, I stopped to fiddle with my bag which had fallen and loudly whacked heads with the woman who was sitting down in front of me. She was not amused.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
An infant keened, a woman in back explained confession to her small son, two men in front of me chatted. Otherwise it was a very quiet crowd, many praying.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening, we welcome our visitors and worshippers to Guardian Angel Cathedral."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Seasonal Missalette Worship Resource.

What musical instruments were played?
The cantor sang beautifully, both a cappella and with an organ. I looked around for the organist, but couldn't spot the organ.

Did anything distract you?
An aromatic diaper smell from (I hope) one of the toddlers. Strange acoustics, too, from all those triangular angles. When the celebrant's name was announced, I heard: "Father-er William-am Whit-hid-sid." Right, I thought. Father William it is.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Stranger-friendly. The cantor clearly announced and led each simple worship song. We were told the purpose of everything, from the blessing of the ashes to the Eastern European destination of the collection.

Guardian Angel, Las Vegas, Nevada

Exactly how long was the sermon?
9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – solid 8.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The purpose of Lent is to look at our inner demons, to work on our relationship with God and our neighbors, to bring peace into our homes, neighborhoods and the world.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The celebrant expressed surprise at the large number in attendance. "After all," he said, "we're passing out ashes, not gold chips." I was happy to be among them.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
In the middle of communion my inner demon kept suggesting ways one could fall and be impaled on the pointy parts of the modern triangular shapes sticking up behind the altar area. All of them improbable. Must have been that 8 year-old inner demon.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
People received their ashes and immediately left for their cars. I waited until the last, then tapped a friendly and fatherly deacon on the shoulder for my ashen reminder.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None was served. I joined a queue of people with little black crosses on their foreheads at the Starbucks in the strip mall.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 as a visitor. But as a regular I'd want something that felt more like home.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The service made me feel real in the midst of unreality.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
A very nice young man was handing out anti-nuke literature in front of the church. He invited me to join the Interfaith Desert Peace Walk, which culminates in getting arrested on Good Friday for trespassing on the Nevada Test Site. The citation is only $380, and possibly nothing bad would happen if I didn't pay it, he said.

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