COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. Amanda Zkiab visits The Citadel Mall four or five times a week, but the 25-year-old isn't there to scour the sale racks, stuff herself with food-court goodies or cruise for a date.
Zkiab bypasses the shops and goes straight to the Catholic Center, which offers Mass, confession and spiritual guidance in a place where people normally worship couture and pray they haven't reached their credit limit. Even the rosaries are free.
''It's so convenient, there's no excuse,'' Zkiab said one afternoon after Mass. ''When I'm done, it's like, 'Oh, I can shop.'''
What started as an experiment in 2001 by a small group of Capuchin Franciscan friars has grown to a bustling ministry that attracts up to 50 people for afternoon Mass, despite its recent move into a temporary space across from its old location. In September, the center plans to relocate into a bigger storefront, complete with a new, 100-seat chapel.
The Rev. Curtis Carlson, one of three friars who work full time at the center, said he believed there were fewer than 10 Roman Catholic centers in malls across the country.
But the idea of ministering in the marketplace is centuries old. St. Francis of Assisi, who founded the Franciscan order, often would preach in markets or plazas.
''Malls are sort of modern day versions of that,'' Carlson said. ''It makes sense that the church would be where the people are.''
The mall also benefits because the Catholic Center brings regular foot traffic to an area that has struggled to keep tenants, said Bob Taylor, senior property manager at The Citadel.
''It brings, certainly, a very solid type of individual into the mall,'' Taylor said. ''Some of them shop here, some of them don't, but they all feel good about being here.''
Once inside the Catholic Center, however, it's easy to forget the surrounding mall, except for the laughter and shrieks coming from the nearby children's play area and the Beatles and Chuck Berry music wafting in from the mall's sound system.
The temporary center is simply decorated, with Catholic posters, statues and flowers. Several large bookshelves in the front hold pamphlets and prayer books, many in Spanish. Two small booths farther from the entrance give the friars privacy for hearing confession. In the back, out of view from mall patrons, is the chapel.
While not all friars members of certain Catholic orders are priests, all of the Capuchin Franciscans at the mall center are.
Dressed in brown robes tied with white cord, they celebrate Mass at least twice on weekdays and once on Saturday. At least one friar is available throughout the day.
For many center regulars, it is the always-available friars not the center's close proximity to the Gap that matter.
Jeannie Potts, a 62-year-old homemaker who tries to attend Mass every day, said she would need to schedule an appointment with her busy parish priest to receive the same services she can get just by dropping in to the mall center.
Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan agreed. ''Because priests are doing so very many things in the parish, it's very difficult for them to be available for confession all the time,'' said Sheridan, whose diocese sponsors the center with the Capuchin Province of Mid-America.
But the center doesn't want to replace the neighborhood parishes, Carlson said. The friars close the chapel on Sundays to work in parishes and don't hold weddings or funerals at the mall.
''We want people to go to their own parish for that,'' Carlson said, adding that the friars often help people find a local church.
Dennis Doyle, a professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, said malls are bastions of consumerism and an example of the increasing separation between spirituality and daily life.
''(The friars are) challenging both of those things,'' Doyle said. ''By their actions, they're showing that faith and life are not to be separated.''
For Potts, the Catholic Center has helped show her that she can find spirituality in even the most mundane tasks and places.
''It makes you more aware that Jesus is everywhere, even in the mall,'' Potts said. ''He comes first, shopping comes later.''
On the Net:
Catholic Center: http://www.catholicchapelmall.org
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