PARAMUS, N.J. — For some, the news was undoubtedly sad: On March 1, Ash Wednesday, St. Therese Catholic Chapel at the Bergen Town Center mall in Paramus, New Jersey, closed after nearly 50 years.

For these sorrowful souls, it was one of the places where they felt closest to God, as The New York Times characterized the feelings of one of the chapel’s volunteers, Susan Munroe.

But for others, this news possibly elicited the question, “Why is there a Catholic chapel in a shopping mall?”

For these perplexed people, the wonder is not that such a creation might have closed, but that it would have existed at all — alongside the Gap, Victoria’s Secret and Banana Republic.

And yet, since at least 1960, chapels — mostly Protestant — have existed in dozens of malls across the country. According to a 2002 Times article, “some 100 of the nation’s nearly 1,200 enclosed malls have some religious presence, typically bookstores with religion themes, but occasionally churches.”

Most — like the several Catholic mall chapels around the country, including the now-shuttered Paramus location — lease space. Others, such as Hope Evangelical Church in Grand Forks, North Dakota, own space in the mall.

Owensboro Christian Church in Owensboro, Kentucky, actually bought a mall, remodeled one end and turned that into a 56,000-square-foot worship space. The church is still there, but the rest of the mall is defunct.

Some see an explicitly Christian area inside a marketplace as perfectly in keeping with the missionary spirit of St. Paul. Thus the question is not “Why are there mall chapels?” but “Why aren’t there more of them?”

However, the better question might be: “Will we continue to have malls in which to find chapels?”

According to a 2016 NBC News report, more than two dozen shopping malls have shuttered their doors since 2010. Another 60 are on the verge of disappearing, and another 15% of all malls are expected to close their doors over the next decade.

Close to 9% of retail shopping has moved online, up 2% over the last three years (including the first-ever topping of $100 billion in holiday online sales this past season, while brick-and-mortar stores experienced their worst ever results). Walmart and other large retailers are even moving to online grocery shopping.

Furthermore, malls no longer serve as the place teens hang out. Instead, they use the “mall of the Web,” Snapchat.

Closed shopping centers are being repurposed as office buildings and health care facilities. One, Euclid Square Mall in Ohio, has become a church.

For the chapel in Paramus, which opened in 1970, the problem was not that Bergen Town Center closed. Rather, the retail space needs its 5,000 square feet — which included offices and a bookstore — for new tenants.

Finding a new home in the area won’t be easy. At the mall, the caretaker Carmelites paid $10 per square foot. Possible new sites want anywhere from $25 to $35.

How affordable that is for an entity that currently fills just a third of its 150 seats on busy Saturdays is an open question. In 2002, however, it attracted 200 people for daily Mass and 1,500 for confession each month.

 

Catholic Mall Chapels

With the closing of St. Therese, at least three Catholic mall chapels continue to operate: another chapel called St. Therese at Northshore Mall in Peabody, Massachusetts, St. Francis Chapel at the Prudential Building in downtown Boston, and the Catholic Center at The Citadel in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The “mall chapel experience” in this country dates back to 1959, when Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston wanted a convenient place of worship for working people.

Cushing, says Father James Doran of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, who runs the chapel at “the Pru,” wanted to facilitate “devotion for the working man and woman,” and so opened chapels not only at the Prudential Building Mall, but in the aforementioned shopping center in Peabody, at the rail station, the shipping dock and the airport.

The one at the railway is now defunct, but the site at Logan International Airport still operates, and the location at the shipping dock is being rebuilt. Our Lady of Good Voyage Chapel at the Seaport is set to open just after Easter. Until then, the old site continues to function, including offering two Masses on Sunday.

Its sister at the Pru offers 10 Masses on the weekend, serving an average of 1,000 souls to accommodate not only the people who work downtown, but tourists, convention-goers, and even the 52-story building’s residents.

Over the generations, then, these places have helped nurture and sustain the souls who visit them.

There is Munroe, a consecrated virgin who has lived out her vocation over much of the past decade volunteering at the Paramus chapel.

Of the Peabody chapel, Melanie Bettinelli, an area homemaker, says, “We used to have a young-adult group that met for confessions on Saturday mornings at the chapel in the Northshore Mall and then went to [a local restaurant] afterward for a pizza lunch. That got me in the way of getting to regular confession again.”

 

Shopping Mall Vocation

They even helped at least one man find his vocation to the priestly life.

The pastor of two cluster parishes in Walpole, Massachusetts, Father George C. “Chip” Hines, says he was working near the Pru on Newbury Street for a real estate company and was discerning the priesthood. “At lunch I would go to the chapel for daily Mass, and there was [an Oblate] priest serving there named Father Tom Carzon. Father Tom was my age, but looked much younger, and for some reason was very approachable to me. We began to engage in discussions about the priesthood, [and] he encouraged me to reach out to the vocation director.

“Without that push, without that positive feedback, I’m not sure I would be 13 years ordained and the pastor of two parishes. I’d probably have gone another path, and I’m not sure I’d be as happy today as I am if I had.”

 

Brian O’Neel writes from Coatesville, Pennsylvania.