I’m a Jersey boy. I grew up in a wonderful small town called Hawthorne. You’ve probably never heard of it, but you may have heard our most prominent nearby landmark, the shopping malls of Paramus.
There were a handful of them, when I was a kid in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, they are shoulder to shoulder all along Route 4, stretching from Fair Lawn to Hackensack.
Malls tend to be predictable, but since 1970, one, The Bergen Mall — now known as The Outlets at Bergen Town Center — has had something the other malls lack, a Catholic chapel dedicated to St. Therese.
The Carmelite fathers, a religious order that was founded in the Middle East during the Crusades, established and operated the mall chapel. By 1970, New Jersey shoppers were being drawn to the malls’ big stores with their wide selection of merchandise and leaving their small neighborhood stores behind. The trend hit the small business owners of small towns pretty hard — a walk along Hawthorne’s once-busy business district will prove that.
The Carmelites figured they would take the Church to where the people were. They rented space on the lower level of the mall, a venue that had none of the glitz of the flagship stores on the main level. Some of their fellow tenants were a bit odd — at one point, one of the Carmelites’ neighbors was a psychic.
Nonetheless, the chapel staff offered what Catholics expected from a chapel — Mass said three times a day (four on Saturday), priests hearing confessions on a daily basis, and occasional devotions such as recitation of the rosary organized by chapel/shopping mall regulars. And since the chapel catered to consumers, there was a gift shop.
Strange to say, in the 47 years of its existence, Mass was never said on Sunday at St. Therese’s. Under Bergen County’s archaic blue laws, all the shopping malls along Route 4 were shuttered on Sundays, a regulation that also locked out the mall chapel’s congregation.
Today, the chapel is located on an upper floor of Marshall’s, the discount department store. The mall’s lower level has been given over to a parking garage and clearance stores for such respectable retailers as Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus. But on March 1, Ash Wednesday, the first day of the penitential season of Lent, the last Mass will be said at St. Therese’s. In the days that follow the closing, the Carmelites and their friends will pack up the sacred vessels and vestments, the holy images, the rows of chairs, the remaining merchandise from the gift shop, and store it all somewhere, while they look for a new location.
The mall’s management is remodeling to attract new tenants, the chapel is occupying prime real estate, and there is no other space at the Bergen Town Center where the Carmelites can relocate. In other words, there’s no room at the mall.
Father Eugene Bettinger, director of the chapel since 2003, told the Record newspaper, “I have no complaints. We have been treated very well by the mall.” Father Bettinger and his confreres are looking for a spot in another Paramus mall, but rents are high — $25 to $35 per square foot; at the Bergen mall, the Carmelites were paying less than $10 per square foot.
Also speaking to the Record reporter, Susan Munroe, a regular volunteer and worshipper at St. Therese’s, said she and her friends from the mall chapel are trying to remain optimistic. “Everybody’s praying really hard, and they’re looking forward to being in an even better place,” Munroe said. But rent in a thriving commercial area is an inescapable reality. In the age-old battle between God and Mammon, at the moment in Paramus, Mammon has the upper hand.
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