by Roxanne King | In 2001, the Capuchin friars of St. Conrad Province took the Church to the people by opening The Catholic Center in the Citadel Mall. Now in its 19th year, it is going strong.
Staffed by four friars and open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day but Sunday, the center, which includes an inviting lobby and a 100-seat chapel, primarily exists to offer Mass, the sacrament of reconciliation and the chance to seek counsel from a priest.
"We want to be there for people who are seeking advice or the sacraments or who want to talk a little bit, that's the biggest thing we offer," said Capuchin Fr. Curtis Carlson, the center's director. "The best thing is bringing God's presence into people's lives or helping them see where God already is present and assisting them in their relationship with God. Being able to talk one-on-one with a spiritual leader is vital to people. They appreciate and seek it out."
Among the center's advocates is Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan. "When I learned that my predecessor, Bishop Hanifen, had arranged for the Capuchin friars to start a ministry of confessions and Masses at the Citadel Mall, I was very, very pleased," he said, noting that the initiative reminded him of a downtown chapel the friars had in St. Louis when he served there as a priest.
"The friars provide a much-needed ministry, especially in these times when the mercy of God is emphasized by Pope Francis," Bishop Sheridan continued. "Many people take advantage of the presence of the friars at the mall. I pray that they continue with us for many years."
The friars are aided by a group of some 60 volunteers who take turns welcoming visitors, manning the lobby's front desk and assisting
people with referrals to parishes or resources such as Catholic Charities. Visitors may help themselves to free Bibles, prayer cards, rosaries, religious medals, and informational pamphlets available in both English and Spanish.
A dramatic increase in ministry numbers over the last 10 years show the center has grown in popularity and, rather than being a curiosity that people unexpectedly encounter, has become an intended stop for the scores of those who use it regularly.
"The majority of visitors are those who make this their weekday Mass; others come now and then but regularly enough that we know them. Some come in who are shopping and decide to join us," said Fr. Carlson. "We help the mall because we're a destination for many people who then perhaps go get something to eat or do shopping before continuing with their day."
Figures from the 2008-2009 liturgical year compared with those of 2018-2019 show more than a 68 percent increase in confessions/private counsel, a nearly 76 percent increase in Lenten confessions and nearly an 8-fold increase in attendance for special Masses outside the regular Mass times, such as holy days of obligation.
"We liked the idea of the mall because it's the modern marketplace," Fr. Carlson said. "St. Francis of Assisi himself and the early friars would, over the years, preach in the marketplace and the town square, as that was where the people were. This is a modern version of that."
First located in a tiny mall space that seated just 15 people, after a year The Catholic Center moved temporarily into a nearby spot with room for a 90-seat chapel. In 2004 the center moved further down the corridor to its present site. Mass is offered twice on weekdays (12:10 p.m. and 6 p.m.) and once on Saturdays (12:10 p.m.). The center is closed on Sundays.
Because the center is not a parish, Sunday Mass, baptisms, weddings and funerals are not offered. Two of the friars speak Spanish and can hear confessions in Spanish. A Spanish-language Mass is offered at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays. Typically just one friar is on duty during the day and another during the evening.
"On Ash Wednesday and all during Holy Week we double up because of the number of people coming in," Fr. Carlson said. "All during Lent it's even busier yet – then there will be a couple dozen people waiting in line [for confession or counsel] at any given time."
During Holy Week and holy days of obligation, it's not uncommon to see long lines of people patiently waiting for confession or a private session with a priest. "I've even seen priests come to confession here," former volunteer coordinator Debbie McMonigle said after the noon Mass Feb. 21. "It's nice to have confession available any time you need it."
That day, a young couple and a Mom with several youngsters were among those waiting to meet with a priest, more than 30 people attended the noon Mass, and people of all ages stopped in to pray in the chapel and/or to browse the lobby items or ask questions at the front desk.
Current volunteer coordinator and administrative assistant Karen Zecha said the Center is special. "I tell everybody it's a sanctuary," she said. "It's peaceful, holy ground. You're welcome to come in anytime and be with Christ."