JANESVILLE

Bernice Schwab helped get bingo started in 1973.

More than four decades later, Schwab attended the last night of bingo at St. Patrick School with her grandchildren.

“Oh, I’ve made so many friends here,” Schwab said wistfully.

It wasn’t an easy night for many people. Most were mourning the loss of the community connections.

Betty Sauerbrei has been coming to bingo for 32 years.

“I don’t know what the heck I’m going to do on Saturday night,” Sauerbrei said. “I have a lot of friends here. I don’t know when I’m going to see them.”

While other organizations might host bingo games, St. Patrick had a particular feel. The phrase, “We were like a family” came up a lot.

Michelle Denio said it was the only place you could come with a child. Kids aren’t allowed to play bingo until they are 10, but they were always welcome.

Denio pointed out the regulars.

“That couple drive from Monroe,” Denio said. “They come even if there’s 6 feet of snow on the ground.”

Others came from Fort Atkinson, Edgerton and from the rural towns around Janesville.

Two, sometimes three generations of families sat together.

Deborah Morrison, who has been playing for about 20 years, said the food and the hospitality were unbeatable.

Morrison and others said they also felt the play was fair.

“At some places they’ll divide the pot in half if not enough people show up,” Morrison said. “They never do that here.”

On Saturday, the crowd filled the cafeteria, a room adjacent to it and the auditorium above the cafeteria. When someone in the auditorium had a bingo, everyone would stomp on the floor so the caller in the cafeteria would know.

Changes in school and church policies have meant the the end of bingo, said Diann Wurtz, a volunteer.

Bingo was started in 1973 as a way to keep the school open, Schwab said.

The priest at the time sent a letter to the parishioners saying the school would have to close. Without the sisters, it would be impossible to pay for teachers, staff and all the building expenses.

A group of parishioners decided that bingo would help keep the school afloat. Parents were also charged tuition.

Parents and parishioners committed their Saturdays to the event. Although the first game didn’t start until 5:30 p.m., people had to come several hours in advance to set up the kitchen and sell tickets. Then there was cleanup after the last round at 7:30 p.m.

On Saturday, some of those parishioners were still there and still volunteering.

Schwab has had health issues that meant she could no longer volunteer. But her husband Ben was still volunteering.

Why didn’t they just send parish kids to one of the other parochial schools in Janesville? Why give up all those Saturday nights?

“It was our parish, and they belonged in our own school,” Schwab said.

Last year, bingo made about $91,000 for the parish, Wurtz said. Concessions brought in an estimated $11,000, she said. All the money went into the parish’s general fund.

The end of bingo does not mean the end of the school, said St. Patrick School Principal Nicole May.

May said the bingo revenue wouldn’t “make or break the school.”

She stressed she didn’t want to “slight the bingo committee” or downplay the contributions it has made to the school over the past four decades. Now, however, the school will be looking for new ways to save—and raise—money, she said.

About a dozen students attend the St. Patrick pre-kindergarten program. State money supports that program.

St. Patrick’s School has between nine and 11 students in grades K to 8th. That’s down from about 70 last year. Those students pay tuition and the remaining expenses are paid for out of parish funds and through fundraising.

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