The sunlight is penetrating the palm trees east of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in downtown Las Vegas as Rev. Courtney Edward Krier begins his day.
At 7:00 a.m., the priest’s floor-length black cassock sweeps across the courtyard of the church at the corner of Ninth Street and Ogden Avenue as he pours old holy water in preparation for his first mass of a long day. Back inside, he fills the large silver pot with water from the kitchen tap and carries it down a narrow hallway into the ornate church, where it is placed at the door and blessed for the ritual cleansing of the parishioners when they enter the church.
This will as all Sundays will be busy for the middle-aged priest who has led the mostly low-income, mostly Hispanic and Filipino communities of Saint Joseph’s for 23 years. It is a day of four Catholic masses in three languages in two states, hearing confessions and serving food to the hungry even if one’s own stomach is empty. A long day of spirituality and ritual dedicated to God, punctuated by the everyday mechanisms of human service.
The day’s work is relentless in part because Krier is one of the few priests in the Las Vegas area willing to celebrate the Latin Mass, which many Catholics deviated from after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
Saint Joseph’s is one of seven churches in the Las Vegas area that identify themselves as “Catholic” but are not officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Las Vegas or Rome.
“We are what you used to be. We believe what you once believed. We venerate as you once venerated it, “explains a church pilot how he deviates from the modern church.
This means that besides reading the Bible in English or Spanish, all masses are given in Latin.
The parish describes itself as traditionally Catholic. Casual clothing is considered inappropriate, women are expected to cover their heads, and communion is received exclusively from the priest.
Krier’s rare, conservative ministry calls on him to serve several dispersed communities. He does not care.
“I’m here for the belief, right?” he proclaims.
“What does he (God) want from you?” he remembered asking himself as a child. At the age of 14, Krier left his home in Ohio to attend a seminar in Germany. He returned to the United States to take over Saint Joseph’s in 1993 when the priest who founded the Church in 1982 was diagnosed with leukemia.
“Since then, I’ve tried to take care of the people here,” he said. Once you see your calling, “you know what to do,” he said before going into the confessional before 8 o’clock mass. A man follows him and opens the inconspicuous white door. A red light will flash.
Church volunteer Robert Taylor takes charge of the ward in prayer.
“Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you, ”Taylor repeats from the front row with his head bowed.
When the people enter the church, Michael Jungers greets them with a smile.
A boy, about 3 years old, comes in with his mother and two younger children. He takes a handful of the recently blessed water and pats his forehead four times, imitating his mother’s sign of the cross.
“He doesn’t let the grass grow under his feet,” Jungers said of Krier’s demanding schedule, before sitting in the back row with the rosary in his fingers.
“It’s usually very early at 8 o’clock” for low mass.
This morning is no different.
At 8 a.m. sharp, two acolytes enter through the adjacent kitchen door and light two-foot candles on either side of a large crucifix.
“Thing! Thing! Thing! “A bell rings and Krier appears in a light green robe. A gold-embroidered cross stretches from his neck to his ankles as he kneels to pray by candlelight in front of the altar.
“It symbolizes hope,” he later explained the symbolism of the color green.
He tells his congregation of around 40 to sit down. The wooden benches, which have been worn dark after long periods of use, creak.
“We’re here for the truth. We’re here forever, ”he begins.
In the middle of the ceremony, the participants stand on their knees at the altar for communion.
The 57-year-old priest walks down the line putting the hosts of communion on waiting tongues.
The service ends at 9 a.m. and Krier shoots through the kitchen to walk around the church and greet the believers as they walk through the entrance on Ogden Avenue.
“I try to reach as many people as possible,” he says with a grin.
Still wearing his robe, he takes a moment to pick up discarded cups and bottles that homeless people have left on the walls of his chapel in the shadows of the casinos and hotels in downtown Las Vegas.
A member of the ward stops to kiss his garbage-filled hand.
“The most wonderful person I know,” said a woman on the street. “When you feel bad, he makes you feel good.”
Most mornings there is only half an hour of coffee break before the priest has to return to work and hear confessions before the second service.
This morning a visibly distraught young woman interrupts him when he is chatting at the back door of the church and asking for a cup of coffee.
It’s the only day the church doesn’t serve breakfast, but Krier insists on feeding the woman. He gives her a sandwich and a white styrofoam bowl of coffee.
The church is starting to fill for 10 o’clock mass. Some people arrive with folding chairs in hand, expecting a full house.
Music, ornate clothing, and rows of glowing white candles make for a more elaborate service. Ushers point some women unfamiliar with the Church to a sign with a passage from 1 Corinthians 11:13. “Judge for yourself: is it right for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?”
Through the sea of black and white lace, Krier reappears, this time in a dark green robe with a golden baroque pattern. He sings in Latin with the choir and the congregation.
Incense permeates the small amount of about 25 churchgoers. Disappointed about the low number of visitors, he later blames road closures and the weather.
When the priest does not celebrate Mass in Latin, he repeats the same announcements and Bible reading from the morning service in English.
After a short break, the priest, who is fluent in English, Spanish and German, celebrates a better attended Spanish-language mass. Parents then gather in the kitchen to have pastries and coffee while their children take an hour of catechism class.
At half past five, lunch time has come and gone for others, but not a bite for the busy priest. Krier and Taylor rush out of the church and get into a limo.
You have 90 minutes to travel 110 miles to Needles, California.
Let’s just say the Lord was with Taylor that day. No parking tickets are written. In fact, only one traffic cop has interrupted his trip in eight years. He only issued a warning on the condition that the priest would pray for him.
You make it to a converted garage on the outskirts of Needles for free time. At 4 p.m., around 10 people gather for mass.
Gail Cohenno, a regular at the church, donated her side yard for the tiny cult site.
“She offered the land and we built the church,” said Krier.
Turnout on a Sunday is average and that is a problem. Most of the Needles congregation are elderly, and the future of the remote Latin Mass outpost is uncertain. If the group drops below five, Krier can no longer justify the trip.
At 5:02 p.m., after five wardrobe changes and ten hours of work, the priest is ready for his only meal of the day. In the growing darkness he goes to Cohenno’s humble house and follows the scent of chilli in the wind.
“We have dinner for Father every Sunday,” she explained.
The priest’s fast comes to an end with a bite of Cohenno’s homemade salad. An hour of conversation over dinner ranges from topics such as water rights and hometowns before the priest and his driver return with lunch in brown sacks on Monday for the long drive home on the highway.
They’ll do it again next week. And the week after. And the week after.
“We keep going because it’s our life,” said Krier.
Contact Kimberly De La Cruz at [email protected] or 702-383-0381. Find her on Twitter: @KimberlyinLV