Shopping Mall Confessionals Draw Customers

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Joe Ambuul faced a dilemma.

He wanted to go to confession, but his parish, Corpus Christi Catholic Church, hears confessions for only a couple of hours in mid-afternoon on Saturday when he often works.

So, instead of going to church, Ambuul hit the nearby Citadel Mall. There, located just two doors down from Mervyn's department store, the Capuchin Franciscans offer daily confession at the Catholic Center.

It's part of a small but growing trend among both Catholics and Protestants to bring the faith to consumers at their local shopping malls.

Ambuul said that, “It's convenient and it's nice to have the sacrament readily available,” he said.

In the past six months alone, the center has served more than 22,437 people, hearing more than 2,200 confessions.

The Mid-American Province of the Capuchin Franciscans is one of about a half-dozen apostolates that offer the sacraments at various shopping malls across the United States.

In the spring of 2001, the Capuchin province leadership approached Bishop Richard Hanifen in Colorado Springs seeking a new type of ministry. Bishop Hanifen suggested opening a chapel in a mall. On Nov. 23, 2001, the Catholic Center was born.

The storefront features a receptionist, two small rooms that serve as confessionals and a recently expanded chapel. The original chapel seated only 15. Last November it was enlarged to accommodate 65.

On any given day approximately 17 individuals receive the sacrament of reconciliation and at least 73 people attend the two daily Masses held in the chapel.

“That is a 30% to 40% increase over the numbers we served last year,” said Father Gene Emrisek, one of the four priests — affectionately known as “mall monks” — who serve at the center.

“The diocese is strapped for priests,” Father Emrisek explained. “People come because they know that a priest is always going to be there, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday.”

“We have a good number of people who haven't been to confession for some length of time,” he added. “We have had people who have been away for as long as 25 or 30 years.”

Father Emrisek estimated that it costs approximately $135,000 to run the center annually. That amount is covered through individual donations, fund-raising appeals, the Knights of Columbus, the diocese and the Capuchin province.

Another mall apostolate that features the sacraments is the Franciscan Place in Syracuse, N.Y.'s Carousel Mall. Its chapel and gift shop have been open since October 1999.

There, as in Colorado Springs, Mass is celebrated in a chapel twice daily, and three friars offer the sacrament of reconciliation. Unlike the Catholic Center, the Franciscan Place is the only mall apostolate that is owned, funded and operated by two religious communities — an order of Franciscan brothers and an order of Franciscan sisters.

“Our greatest gift is availability,” said Conventual Franciscan Brother Joseph Freitag, director of the Franciscan Place. “The reason a lot of people come here is because they aren't going to go ring a doorbell on a rectory. So many more lay people are active in their parish that they feel awkward going to confession to the one priest who knows everyone's voice.”

In addition to the sacraments, the Franciscan Place also serves other community needs. It answers questions about the faith, provides information on becoming Catholic and shares information on individual parishes and Mass times.

“If someone comes in needing a sandwich, we refer them to a food pantry or Catholic Charities,” Brother Freitag explained. As an additional benefit, the Franciscan presence in the mall provides greater exposure for religious life.

“People aren't coming to church, so we need to do something different,” Brother Freitag said. “This is where we need to be.”

However, Brother Freitag noted there is also a potential negative aspect to mall churches.

“Many of these mall operations become Mass factories or alternative churches for disgruntled Catholics,” he said. “We don't want the pews any emptier than they already are. Our whole point is to get people back to church.”

Whether or not they are doing that, the numbers served are impressive. Brother Freitag estimated the Franciscan Place receives approximately 100 to 150 visitors every day, hearing between 50 to 60 confessions daily.

Franciscan Sister Laurine McDonald, a receptionist at the Franciscan Place, tells the story of one chapel visitor.

“This big guy came in who was physically and verbally handicapped,” she said. “A few minutes after he went into the chapel I heard him shouting, ‘Take care of my grandfather!’ When I went in I found him with his hand on the tabernacle, continuing to shout, ‘Take care of my grandfather.’ As I walked him out of the chapel he asked, ‘Do you think God heard?’ I told him that if I could hear him out front, I supposed that God could hear him, too.”

As it turned out, the man's grandfather had died in Florida 10 years earlier and he was unable to say goodbye.

“I like to think that those moments in the chapel helped him to deal with his grief,” Sister McDonald said.

Chapel of Love?

Some Protestant denominations nationally and internationally are also exploring the concept of mall churches.

But mall religion, of course, is not an entirely benign reality. At the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., the Chapel of Love, located next door to Bloomingdale's department store, performs 10 weddings per week. Clearly, the endeavor is more retail-oriented than religious. The chapel offers one of three ceremonies — Christian, spiritual or civil — for $269.

Since the chapel first opened nine years ago, it has had more than 4,000 ceremonies performed in it. Five ordained Lutheran and Methodist pastors perform the ceremonies, 85% of which are Christian.

“The person who is getting married at the Chapel of Love is looking for a nondenominational, traditional ceremony,” manager Susan Mills said. “People don't necessarily want to jump through the hoops of organized religion.”

Pastor Chris Reinertson came to his chapel's defense. “You can get married at the mall,” he said. “You can get just about anything you want at the mall. God wants a positive commercial for him at the Mall of America, too.”

Internationally, Scotland has also entertained the concept of mall churches. In response to census data that show 27.5% of Scots are of “no current religion,” the (Anglican) Church of Scotland has begun considering renting space in shopping malls as a means of attracting the younger generations.

During their March visit to Rome, Pope John Paul II told the Scottish Catholic bishops, “We may observe that in Scotland, as in many lands evangelized centuries ago and steeped in Christianity, there no longer exists a Christian society.”

“Shopping is the new family activity on a Sunday,” said Elisabeth Spence, a chaplain in Scotland. “I think young people especially would see that the church can have relevance for them.”

One thing is for certain. When you're bringing the sacraments to the people in an unconventional setting, you have to have a sense of humor.

Father Emrisek recalled one of the initial reactions to the Capuchin friars in the Citadel Mall.

“Within our first month, a young child saw the friar on duty,” he said. “He called him a Jedi.”

Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.