Called Out of the Basement to Higher Ground
By: Mary Ellen Schoonmaker, editorial writer and columnist for the Bergen Record in Hackensack, New Jersey. Used with permission. August 2, 2007
Old Saint Therese Sanctuary in the basement of Bergen Town Center, Paramus, New Jersey, before the move upstairs

When we last visited the chapel in the former Bergen Mall in December, its future was uncertain. It was not clear whether the mall’s much larger reincarnation as the Bergen Town Center would have room for it.

But Father Eugene Bettinger, O.Carm., the director of the Carmelite Chapel of Saint Therese, has been wearing an “Ask me the good news” button for weeks now, and yesterday was the first day of Masses in the chapel’s new location.

Saint Therese has moved up in the world. It is no longer hidden in the basement, where it was reached by an escalator for 37 years. It is now on the mall’s second level, in space that used to be occupied by a computer school.

No longer subterranean, the new chapel is wider, brighter, airier and quieter. It is also a little harder to find, but that did not stop about 100 people from attending the noontime Mass. Afterward, Bettinger proudly gave a tour of the new site, four good-sized rooms altogether. That means the priests, the volunteers who run the gift shop and the people who come in and out all day for prayer or counseling will no longer be shoehorned into one dusty, cramped and dingy space.

The chapel’s 19 Masses each week draw between 1,200 and 1,800 people: shoppers, sales clerks, older folks who go to the mall to socialize, those Catholics who do not want to belong to a more formal parish, as well as the lonely or troubled. The four Saturday Masses are often standing-room-only. In the basement, the overflow crowd had to stand outside in the hall, watching the service on closed-circuit TV. Now everyone should be able to fit into the new chapel, which has about 100 seats and lots of room in the back for latecomers.

A New Room

A new Reconciliation Room will replace the basement chapel’s antiquated confessional, which was dark and curtained and had a certain attraction for those who preferred anonymity. The new room will be more in line with the way the sacrament is perceived today: welcoming, comforting and putting those with heavy consciences at ease.

The new, upstairs chapel is larger and brighter, seen here in side view

Bettinger told his listeners that he learned where the chapel would be relocated only about six weeks ago, after more than two years of uncertainty. Even though the space is more accommodating, the rent is actually lower. “That tells me we are wanted,” he said. He also credits Saint Therese of Lisieux, the French Carmelite nun who is the patroness of the chapel, with working behind the scenes to smooth the way.

Meanwhile, all around the chapel, the oldest mall in New Jersey will continue to morph into the huge town center. Construction will go on for another year. When it is done, pedestrian walkways will connect groups of big-box stores with separate entrances, instead of everything under one roof. With Whole Foods, Lowe’s, Filene’s Basement and Target coming, the mall will be more sophisticated and more crowded.

Fortunately, the mall’s owner, Vornado Realty Trust, realized that the chapel provides something priceless— along with creating a sense of community and goodwill. Over the years, it has inspired such loyalty that some of its volunteers are women who worked in stores at the mall for years and decided to keep coming back after they retired.

Father Eugene Bettinger, O.Carm., enjoys giving tours of the new Saint Therese Chapel.

But the chapel is not an old relic. It is somehow timeless. It has survived the transition that is seen many of the oldest parts of the mall fade away. You can even see it on YouTube, the way it used to be, as part of a nine-minute nostalgic film about the old Bergen Mall; 21,800 viewers have already watched it. Robin Groves, who made the film, says in it that the best part of the old mall was in the basement

The Second Level

But the old mall was kind of tired and tacky, and time cannot stand still. Now one of the best parts of the mall will be on the second level. The new chapel is accessible from the outside through door seven, if you want to use the stairway, or door eight, if you need an elevator, between the entrance to Marshal’s and the Saks Fifth Avenue Outlet.

Even in the midst of a $171 million renovation, some things never change: the need for refuge, solace, compassion, forgiveness—or a few minutes’ escape from the din of commerce to say thank you, I’m sorry or to ask for help.

God has moved from the bottom of the escalator, but he hasn’t left the building.

Homecoming to Higher Ground

The Record, August 2, 2007

Columnist Mary Ellen Schoonmaker’s “Called Out of the Basement to Higher Ground” brought back a wonderful memory about the Roman Catholic chapel at the Bergen Mall.

In the late 1980’s, I came back from a ten-year hiatus from the church. I felt the need to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation but felt uncomfortable confessing my sins to the priests from my parish. Now I realize how silly that was, but that is how I felt at the time.

Saturday after Saturday I would try to go to confession but would just drive right past my parish. Then one day I got into my car and again drove right past my church and went to Saint Therese Chapel at the mall. I went into that old-fashioned confessional and dumped ten years of “junk” out of my soul. The priest was not fazed one bit. We talked a short while and for a penance he gave me just one Hail Mary—I was astounded at the mild penance.

When I left the chapel I felt that a great load had been lifted from me. Going up the escalator, my body got off on the first floor but my soul kept going higher and higher. That escalator always reminded me of the “stairway to heaven.”

I am glad to hear the Carmelite Chapel will remain at the mall and has moved to “higher ground.”

Deacon Andrew Golden, Saint Peter the Apostle Parish, River Edge, New Jersey

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