A year ago, nobody in the tiny town of Lourdes on Newfoundland's Port au Port Peninsula would have expected that a small fundraiser would balloon into a massive craze, with thousands of people driving hours every Sunday to pack into the elementary school of a 500-person town.
The crowds come for a lottery called Chase the Ace. It has a jackpot of more than $250,000 — and each week the pot keeps growing.
The organizers started the lottery hoping to make $5,000 to pay off some of the Our Lady of Lourdes Parish's bills; 42 weeks later they've made more than $400,000.
"It's phenomenal, the atmosphere in our little community. I've lived here for 56 years and we've never seen such a crowd that's partaking in this Chase the Ace," Lourdes resident Albert Snook said.
Chase the Ace works like this: people buy 50-50 tickets throughout the evening and at the end of the night there's a draw. The winner automatically gets 20 per cent of the pot. However, they also get to cut a deck of cards.
'We started out on September 26 with a jackpot of about $300. We never expected we'd get this far.' Sylvia Smith, chairperson of the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto committee
If they get the ace of spades, the winner gets everything accumulated over the 42 weeks. If they don't, that card is thrown out of the deck and the 30 per cent becomes part of next week's jackpot.
After 42 weeks and 42 winners, nobody has cut the ace yet. Now there are only nine cards left in the deck.
Next Sunday, someone could walk out with more than $325,000. But if someone doesn't pick the ace next week, the pool will get even bigger.
"We started out on September 26 with a jackpot of about $300. We never expected we'd get this far," said organizer Sylvia Smith.
Smith is chairperson of the Lady of Lourdes Grotto committee and the brain behind Chase the Ace.
She discovered the concept while visiting her brother in Havre Boucher, Nova Scotia. The community centre in his town had raised more than $300,000 using a similar lottery.
But after last Sunday, the Chase the Ace in Lourdes has broken the revenue record for Atlantic Canada.
In a single evening, the hall brought in more than $117,000 in ticket sales, pushing them over the $400,000 mark.
"Tonight gave us a heat pump for the parish hall, all new lighting, refinish our floors, and some paving," Mayor Henry Gaudon said.
"I'm guessing next week will be about $450,000 or better. I can smell the new pavement."
Last Sunday, Mike and Janet Alexander from Stephenville won the draw, but they didn't cut the ace. They still walked out with a cheque for $23,549.
"I'm going to give my girls half, I have two daughters who live in Ontario," said Mike Alexander.
When Alexander didn't cut the ace, Mayor Henry Gaudon said the mood in the hall was electric.
"We would have liked for them to have drawn the ace, of course, we've been at this a long time. But that didn't happen, so we'll be at it again next week," he said.
"People were screaming, applauding, because they all have another chance at a huge jackpot."
As ecstatic as he is about the crowds, Gaudon said he doesn't think the town would be able to handle any more people.
"All I can say is thank God we didn't advertise this," he said. "We avoided any type of advertising because we knew we wouldn't be able to handle the crowds."
As to why people keep coming back, the money speaks for itself. Mary Batt drove two hours from Corner Brook to take part last Sunday.
"I just kept buying and buying [tickets]. I think they're seven for $10, so I've probably got about $80 worth. I've got two daughters in university in St. John's, so I'm sure that'd go a long way in helping them out," she said.
"It's quick money, something that could happen instantaneously. No luck with 6/49, but maybe this."