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Urnick loves Christmas, Laughlin — and fruitcake

December 20, 2018

LAUGHLIN — The Rev. Charlie Urnick is fond of repeating the urban legend that only one fruitcake actually exists, and gets passed around from person to person.

“Until it gets to me,” Urnick adds. “Then it gets eaten.”

His love for fruitcake is part of a larger affection Urnick, pastor of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, has for Christmas in general.

“I love Christmas,” he said. “The lights, the decorations, the Nativity sets and the star. All of that.”

Easter, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is the most important feast of the Christian year. Christmas, Urnick said, has its own special place.

“There’s something beautiful about Christmas,” Urnick said. “I think it celebrates that God keeps His promises. He promised to send us a savior. It took a long time, in human terms, but God keeps His promises, and he did.”

The fulfillment of that promise is what makes the resurrection possible, he said.

“As important as Easter is, there could be no Easter if there wasn’t Christmas,” Urnick said.

Christmas is the most fun of the holidays, in part because of the memories it holds for everyone.

“You smell something, or see something or hear a song and remember,” Urnick said.

His own Christmas memories include a wind-up plastic church his maternal grandparents had that played “Silent Night.”

“Christmas was going to their house and listening to that song,” he said.

Urnick inherited the church and still winds it up each Christmas.

His paternal grandmother, Urnick said, used a wood stove to make her signature Christmas treat, clam pies, with layers of clams, Uneeda biscuits and butter.

“That dish would smell so good,” Urnick recalled. “It was always a part of Christmas Eve dinner.”

Urnick’s other great love is Laughlin, which the New Jersey native began visiting in 1991.

“I almost always begin every sermon with ‘another awesome week in paradise,’” he said.

The community, Urnick said, is a special blend of people.

“It’s a resort, but it’s also a hometown,” he said. “To a lot of people who have chosen to come here ... that makes it a special place.”

Urnick has written three books, two of which cover his experiences in Laughlin.

One is titled “Dreams Really Do Come True (‘My First Year in Paradise.’)”

After his mother died in 2006, Urnick said, he asked the archbishop of Newark for permission to transfer to Nevada, where he hoped to retire. The request was approved by the bishop of Las Vegas as well, and Urnick waited to see where he would be placed.

In June of 2008, he got a call inquiring about his willingness to serve in Laughlin.

At St. John the Baptist, Urnick has been welcomed with open arms. His office is filled with gifts from parishioners and visitors, including plastic, brass and crocheted hippopotami, other stuffed animals and owl-adorned items.

Among the most special gifts, Urnick said, are gifts of food, often regional delights brought by snowbirds arriving from other parts of the country.

“People who are willing to feed a person, that always impresses me,” he said. “For someone to give you food is a sign of liking you. People here have been very generous that way.”

A woman in New Jersey bakes a seven- or eight-pound fruitcake every year and mails it to Urnick, one of several he will receive.

“They freeze beautifully,” he said.

Another significant gift Urnick has received is a real penguin, brought back from Antarctica at the request of his father, a marine surveyor. The bird didn’t survive the trip back, but was stuffed, and became Urnick’s go-to for Show and Tell at school.

Urnick said he brought the penguin to a recent Community Achievement Awards ceremony “because it was dressed appropriately” for the black-tie event.

Also in his office are a pair of slot machines — fitting for the only church in the U.S. that celebrates Mass in a casino — including one called “God Game.”

Before coming to St. John the Baptist, Urnick served in roles that included Catholic school teacher, parish priest and Air Force chaplain.

In the latter role, Urnick said, he had to guide all the airmen under his care.

“You’re dealing with people of all faiths and of no faith,” he said. “Sometimes, that means finding out about their faith to help them pray, and sometimes it’s just being with them.”

Like Laughlin, the modern U.S. military is made up of people who chose to be there, which makes it special, Urnick said.

The parish has an annual tradition of sending Christmas stockings to U.S. troops serving around the world and to veterans hospitals. This year, he said, volunteers stuffed and shipped more than 4,050 handmade stockings.

Urnick is a big fan of Las Vegas shows, particularly magic shows. One of his favorite memories, though, has to do with a Smothers Brothers performance in Laughlin. A longtime fan, Urnick booked tickets to the show, then wrote the brothers — care of the Riverside Resort, where the show was to take place — inquiring about meeting them afterward.

The comedians had no way of contacting Urnick to let him know they were OK with it, so they placed a bit into the routine about Dick Smothers calling his brother Tom a liar, and having “arranged for Father Charlie to hear your confession after the show.”

Urnick said he’s looking forward to celebrating Christmas Mass, and that he wants the congregation to have two experiences.

“I want to try to stir up their memories of Christmas past,” he said. “And to get them to see the hope that Christmas gives.

“I always point out that there is more good than bad in the world. In the end, good is always gonna win. It might seem unlikely at times, but that’s what’s gonna happen.”

Urnick said he’s always liked writing and talking, and has found a calling that permits him to do both.

“I love this parish,” he said. “I love what I do and where I get to do it.”

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