The 73-year-old Thomas, who as bishop of Helena ordained the real-life subject of Mark Wahlberg’s 2022 film “Father Stu,” also spent most of his childhood and adolescence in Montana.
He said his world has expanded a lot since he was growing up, when it was a treat to go just 10 miles down the road from Anaconda to the hot spring pools of Fairmont to swim.
Despite his Montana upbringing, where cattle ranches cover 63% of the state’s land area, Thomas quit eating beef and pork in 1988. He said he felt good after following a no red meat diet during a visit to Asia, so he decided to keep it up.
This particular attribute of the bishop was a bit difficult for the priests of Helena, he joked.
Thomas also has a close-knit family, which extends to great nieces and nephews.
One of his four sisters even moved to Las Vegas to be with him. Chris Zimmer and her husband, Bruce, live nearby Thomas’ residence so Zimmer can keep house and cook for her brother.
The archbishop said the Virgin Mary heard his prayer to have family close by.
The Archdiocese of Las Vegas serves over 620,000 Catholics and “hundreds of thousands of tourists,” according to the cathedral’s website.
There are probably an additional 200,000 Catholics who are undocumented immigrants, Thomas pointed out.
He said the archdiocese has been experiencing exponential growth for a while — fueled in part by the area’s growing job market, people in search of a better cost of living, and immigration.
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The Las Vegas Archdiocese now has 58 language groups and many parishes are bursting at the seams.
Thomas said the archdiocese is renovating at least four buildings right now and he is preparing to open a new parish this summer. He has also purchased eight acres of land to build another parish.
Some parishes, he boasted, will have 35 baptisms on a single weekend.
But this growth comes with a lot of challenges, too. One of these is a shortage of priests, especially Spanish-speaking priests.
Though the archdiocese receives help from missionary priests, including eight from Nigeria, Las Vegas has just 34 priests to minister to more than 800,000 Catholics (plus tourists and business travelers).
One sign of hope in this area is an increase in diocesan seminarians. When Thomas arrived in 2018, there were only four, while now the archdiocese has 12. Thomas ordained one new priest in 2023.