Last call: After 49 years, bingo at St. Mary’s will end June 23

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Steve Weipert has been a long-time volunteer at St. Mary’s bingo. The long-running event will be held for the last time this Saturday, June 23. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

Norb Hammes has been a staple at bingo for most of its 49 years, calling and organizing the games. He knows who all the regulars are, where they sit and how many cards they typically take.

Norb Hammes is shown here calling bingo in 1977. (Photo from St. Mary’s Guild scrapbook)

Lyle Nierling has been coming to bingo since around 1975. “I lose money, but I also make some once in a great while,” he said with a laugh. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

Tom Giese verifies a bingo Sunday night, June 16.

Many people have volunteered to help with bingo over the years. Some of the notables, pictured here in 2006, included John Kohlstedt, Bob Connell, Erwin Ruff, Ralph Pirc, Norb Hammes, Marjorie Goldsmith, Alfred Goldsmith and Wayne Welch. (Photo from St. Mary’s Guild scrapbook)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

The parish hall at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, in McGregor, is a hub of activity every Sunday evening. People come from around the area—Waukon, Seneca, Lancaster, even Caledonia, Minn.—to try their luck at bingo. For most, it’s a tradition—the same seat, the same number of cards, meeting the same friends—week after week.

But on June 23, they’ll do it all for the last time, as the local institution comes to an end after 49 years. 

“This is huge,” expressed Karol Nelson, one of the leaders of the St. Mary’s Ladies Guild that prepares and serves food each week. “A lot of people are sad as it gets closer to being done.”

The first bingo game was played in 1969.

“Back then,” recalled Norb Hammes, “we needed money for the church. It needed to be remodeled and we were trying to get funds.”

Since then, volunteer Steve Weipert estimates over 72,000 games have been called and played, accounting for a total payout of over $1.8 million.

Hammes has been involved since nearly the beginning, calling and organizing the games. Even though bingo doesn’t start until 7 p.m. (it used to be 7:30 p.m.), he arrives at the church as early as 3:30 or 4 p.m. to set up.

“Norb goes around and puts cards where all the regulars sit, so no one else will sit there,” Nelson said. “It’s really cute.”

“Norb knows everyone by name, how many cards they take,” added another long-time volunteer, Tom Giese. “It’s amazing.”

In it’s heyday, Hammes said bingo drew roughly 325 people each week. Regulars wouldn’t let anything stop them from coming.

“Even when the bridge was closed,” he shared, “we would send a couple cars to the ferry from Prairie du Chien and bring people to the church.”

The biggest jackpot he recalls was $3,000 to $3,500.

Bingo player Lyle Nierling has been coming nearly as long as Hammes, since around 1975.

“I lived up the street at the time,” he said, “and my mom and dad always came here.”

He’s carried on the tradition with his own children: “I have three girls, and I’ve brought each one on their birthdays since they were 5 years old.”

Nierling enjoys talking with other players, as well as the possibility of winning big.

“I lose money, but I also make some once in a great while,” he said with a laugh. “It’s enough to keep me coming back. It’s going to be sad when it’s over.”

Sisters Betty Marmann and Mary Heiden, both of Elkader, have been regulars since the 1990s.

“We’ve always liked coming here,” Marmann said. “We used to go to Guttenberg and Elkader, but they quit. I wish they’d keep going here.”

“The people have been wonderful,” Heiden added. She’s been lucky, too, winning $250 one time.

“I just enjoy trying to win,” she said.

These days, bingo averages a weekly crowd of around 60 people. Because of declining participating and volunteers, Hammes said the church has mulled over whether to end it for the past year. This winter pushed them over the edge, however, when bad weather cancelled the event five weeks in a row.

June 23 is a good time to stop, he said, since it’s at the end of both the church’s fiscal year and the tax quarter.

“It’s sad,” Nelson remarked, “but it’s getting harder to find people to work. No one has been willing to stand up and take over.”

St. Mary’s plight isn’t unfamiliar. Bingo has disappeared in many area communities.

“There used to be tons of bingo around. Every little town had one,” Hammes said. “Now the nearest is St. John’s, in Prairie du Chien. Ossian has it, but they don’t know how long they’re going to go.”

The loss of bingo will mean the loss of a key fundraiser for the church.

“That’s a lot of money to make up over the years,” Hammes said. 

For the St. Mary’s Ladies Guild, Nelson said selling desserts, sandwiches, hot dogs and drinks at bingo is their only source of income, bringing in $400 to $500 each month.

The funds help them complete service projects, send flowers to the nursing home, give sympathy cards and contribute to the Clayton County Food Shelf, among many other activities.

Nelson said no alternative fundraiser has been planned. Luckily, she added, two new stoves and a microwave were recently purchased for the kitchen at the parish hall; any other purchases are on-hold, though.

For Hammes, he’ll miss the people most. He’s unsure what will fill the void Sunday evenings.

“You talk to everybody,” he said. “They come early and eat and play cards and talk to each other. It’s a great benefit for the older people. They’ll miss it.”

Hammes said loyalty has kept him coming back year after year, and he credits other volunteers for helping out, including Weipert, Giese, Nelson, Sue Pennington, Roger Henkels, Julie Breckler, Ron Hefner, Theresa Lang, Joe Milewsky, Kent Pfeiffer, Frank Ries, Becky Ruff and Karla Vogel. Countless more have played a part over the 49-year span.

“They all deserve a lot of credit,” he said. “They’ve worked hard.”

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