By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — Tonight will mark the end of an era for Bingo games at Sacred Hearts School. After nearly 40 years of providing the area with a weekly night out and a chance to win some money, Sacred Hearts is putting an end to the last Bingo game in town.
School and church officials said Bingo has been a steady source of income that has allowed Sacred Hearts School to annually award financial assistance to a number of families. But, with a doubling in size of the school population, there’s a growing need to use the gymnasium/cafeteria where Bingo games are held for an increasing number of after school activities and events.
For those who continued to make the trek to Sacred Hearts every Tuesday night, it was the last Bingo game in a city that once had more than a half dozen Bingo halls. Some players said they don’t know what they will do after tonight’s final game.
“It’s our only night out,” said 80-year-old Lena Dionne, who has been bringing her 56-year-old son Roger Dionne to Sacred Hearts Bingo every week for years.
“My friend drops us off as my son is special needs and doesn’t drive,” Lena Dionne said prior to the start of last week’s Bingo game. “After they close we’ll have nothing else to do. Roger doesn’t go many places without me.”
The night before Bingo, Roger Dionne packs a bag with daubers and snacks and makes sure they have a ride. He made his final preparations last night for tonight’s game, at which a larger than usual crowd is expected and a special pasta meal will be served.
They usually arrive at Bingo early to make it as long a night out as possible.
“I liked Bingo a lot and wish I could protest,” Roger Dionne said. “I really enjoyed going, whether I won or not.”
“Now we’ll have no nights out any more,” he added.
Sacred Hearts School Principal Kathleen Blain announced the closing of Bingo in a recent Sacred Hearts Church bulletin. She noted that in addition to providing the school with income, Bingo has been a venue for social gathering and camaraderie and an opportunity for parents to fulfill their volunteer commitment. She said the decision to end Bingo was made with the support of Sacred Hearts Pastor, the Rev. John Delaney, the School Consultative Board and the Parish Finance Committee.
“Currently, our religious education program conducts classes on Sundays and Wednesdays,” the announcement stated. “In addition we have increased our athletic programs, practices and games, initiated a very popular after school drama program and plan to expand the after school offerings for 2013-2014 school year. Use of the school facilities has become a daily need.”
“We know that is disappointing news to the faithful patrons who attend Bingo weekly,” the announcement said. “And we are aware and empathetic to the fact that the dedicated leadership and volunteer staff will find it very difficult to say good-bye to this long standing program.”
Blain told The Eagle-Tribune that fundraisers are in place that will provide more than adequate monies for financial aid to make up for the loss of Bingo revenue.
Prior to last week’s Bingo game at Sacred Hearts, Maria Ouellette talked about how she began volunteering in 1994 to fulfill her parent volunteer hours. In 2003 she was hired as the game’s part-time bookkeeper, a position she said is required by the state’s lottery commission, which oversees Bingo in Massachusetts.
“We used to have about 275 people show up to play,” Ouellette said, noting that recent attendance has averaged less than 100 players. “When we instituted no smoking, we lost some patrons. But the biggest loss came about eight years ago when parent volunteering at Bingo became non-mandatory. We lost volunteers who would go from table to table selling pull tickets.”
Ouellette said a booth, which was dubbed the “kissing booth” was set up for patrons to buy pull tickets or cash in winners, but without volunteers going from table to table to push the sale of tickets, sales dropped and some players left to play at other Bingo halls, mostly in Southern New Hampshire. And over the years many elderly players died, further reducing attendance. Road construction along South Main Street forced the cancellation of Bingo for much of last summer, while over the last six months a lack of parent volunteers forced the game to be cancelled on two occasions, resulting in complaints by players.
“No one is happy about this,” Ouellette said about the end of Bingo. “For many people who come here it was their only outlet for socialization.”
Every week Ouellette and Beth Sosa, who oversees Bingo, would look out at the crowd checking to make sure the regulars were there.
“If they weren’t there we’d ask about them as we worried about them,” Ouellette said.
Although the games started at 6:30 p.m., many regulars showed up an hour or more early to set out their Bingo sheets and chat with other players and maybe play cards. Some brought snacks, while some bought food items from the hall’s kitchen such as slices of pizza, hot-dogs, hamburgers, coffee or tea, soda, bottled water and pastries.
Barbara Mirandette, 76, attended Sacred Hearts Bingo for over 30 years. Every week she meets her friend Patricia Reynolds, 80, and they sit together and talk and play the game.
“This is very, very sad,” Reynolds said. “Some people don’t drive, like me, so Barbara picks me up each week.”
“I can’t believe it’s closing,” Mirandette said as her daughter Debbie Costa took photos of her as a remembrance of her time playing Bingo at Sacred Hearts.
Mirandette looked around the hall and noted how most of the players were middle-aged adults and many were senior citizens.
“At one time you could play Bingo every night of the week, including at St. James, St. John’s, St. Joseph, the Jewish Temple and the Amvets,” Mirandette said.
Mary Provencal began playing Bingo at Sacred Hearts 39 years ago and used to attend with a crowd of other women. She remembers when the hall was filled to capacity with over 300 players and tables had to be set up on the stage, behind the Bingo caller.
“A lot of older people are gone, but still everybody knows everybody here,” Provencal said. “It’s like a family.”
“It’s really sad,” Provencal said. “A lot of people who come here to play have no where else to go.”
Stella Burns, a 28-year veteran of Sacred Hearts Bingo, says the games are more like a coffee shop where people gather to socialize each week.
“Attendance has been down since about three years ago but I never thought they’d shut it down,” Burns said.
Burns said she has little interest in attending Bingo games in New Hampshire.
“I think it’s time to find a new hobby,” she said.
Rita Walker, 90, became a fixture at Sacred Hearts Bingo, beginning the first day it opened on Sept. 11, 1973. She began volunteering as a parishioner, and became a permanent volunteer working at the special games desk.
“You could not have asked for a nicer group of people,” Walker said. “Whenever we lose a player, it’s like losing a family member.”
“For forty years this has been my favorite night of the week,” Walker said.