Church bingo games spell companionship Friendly competition: The games that are almost a tradition at East Baltimore churches provide companionship and a jolt of stimulation to the participants.

April 09, 1996|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

To see the heart of bingo, go to a Catholic church deep in East Baltimore and watch a group of women pass through the swinging basement doors of its social hall. Each player appears to be a grandmother and each carries a foam-filled pillow and a bag with a night's supply of Dab-O-Ink marking bottles.

Although it's nearly two hours before the phrase "B-Six" echoes off the ceramic-tiled walls, these retirees make a beeline for certain seats at long tables set up with mathematical precision at Our Lady of Fatima Hall.

Within minutes, they have unloaded their bags, positioned their pillows and bought paper sheets with the word "bingo" spelled across the top. Some buy a $3 haddock filet dinner, mashed potatoes with gravy and mixed vegetables on the side.

The bingo games provide two unannounced jackpots. In the course of a year, the proceeds help the parish reduce expenses at its 290-student parochial school. Bingo offers a more subtle dividend. The games provide friendly companionship and a jolt of mental stimulation to the players.

By 7: 15 on a recent Friday night, few seats are vacant. The din of the warm-up chat 'n' chew period has gone silent. For the next three hours plus, a seriousness and purpose settles in over the amplified gurgling drone of numbered Ping-Pong balls being tossed in an air-chamber. There are 140 players, all intent: no one mills in the aisles; no one leaves a table.

"We were coming home from New York state on a parish trip this morning," said Joplin Street resident Annette Barbini. "I told the bus driver, 'Don't spare the horses so I can get there and play bingo.' I told my husband to go home and get the dog from the kennel. I didn't want to miss a minute playing."

"Bingo is part of the subculture of East Baltimore," said the Rev. John Lavin, a Redemptorist priest who is pastor of St. Michael's and St. Patrick's parish, one of many congregations that sponsors the weekly game.

Some of these people gather to play the game at commercially run bingo halls. Others prefer fire halls or social organizations.

Those at Our Lady of Fatima, however, select a neighborhood church setting (neatly tucked in between Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and Patterson High School), where they recognize most of the players, like the way the game is run and know that the profits go back into the school where their children or grandchildren probably received their primary education.

If the presence of fellow neighbor-players affords comfort, so do the sacrosanct rituals of the game.

In the preplaying period (it's not unusual for many players to arrive 90 minutes early), there is time for a 75-cent egg salad sandwich or the fish dinner sold by parish kitchen volunteers, several of whom have been donating their time here for the past 40 years.

The players file up to a stack of unopened brown-paper grocery bags. Each player takes a sack. It becomes a personal trash can for the evening. As one bingo game ends, the players discard their sheets. (The days of cardboard cards and plastic tokens are virtually over.) Players use a swirling hand motion with the Dab-O-Ink marking bottles to stamp the pulp paper sheets.

The players believe in the power of luck. Many tote along a charm or two. At Fatima, the talisman of choice is the TC ratty-haired troll doll or a miniature sign with the phrase "I BINGO" worked in yarn. Other people carry wooden nickels, small ivory elephants and other statuettes, but rarely a religious icon.

In addition to the players, the games have an all-volunteer staff. Six parish women run the kitchen; seven sell bingo cards; two are office helpers; and four younger women act as ushers. The ushers verify the winning cards through a public-address system. Two volunteer callers, Mark Lukasiewicz and Philip Van Camp, divide the evening's responsibilities.

A bingo bus (the bus company is paid by the church and the driver plays the evening's games) circulates throughout Highlandtown and Patterson Park and picks up those who don't drive.

"About the only complaint we ever had here was from the smokers when we made all the buildings smoke free. We may have lost a few players, but we gained some, too," said Brother DeSales Zimfer, a member of the Redemptorist religious order who has moderated the bingo operation for the past 15 years. He also is the church sacristan and helps with food chores at the rectory.

At the 15-minute intermission, Brother DeSales fields a criticism that a can of Coke goes for 60 cents at a vending machine.

"We have to be careful," he said. "We get complaints if we raise the price of a slice of cake a dime. The players are very businesslike. If you don't do a good job, they will get on you."

Many players will spend about $25 a night to play the game. There is no set minimum here. They can spend $5 or $6 and sit out some of the sessions. Few abstain; many go to a couple of bingo sessions a week in other East Baltimore Roman Catholic churches.

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