To St. Francis Chapel in the heart of Boston, the faithful come. Young and old. White and black. Healthy and infirm.
And this time of year, many come bearing gifts, not gold or frankincense necessarily, but shopping bags stuffed with new purchases.
That’s because St. Francis is a storefront chapel in the Prudential Center mall, conveniently located in the busy retail mecca, next door to Dunkin’ Donuts. “I bought gift cards there for my staff yesterday,” said the Rev. John Wykes, the chapel’s director.
The chapel is staffed by the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, a small Roman Catholic congregation of priests and brothers founded in 1826 by the Venerable Pio Bruno Lanteri and dedicated to a rebirth of spirituality. While a mall might seem like the last place to seek the sacred, St. Francis offers 32 Masses a week, “more than you’d find in most every church anywhere,” said Wykes, one of five priests who serve there throughout the week. He suggested being interviewed in the cramped confessional box, so as not to disturb those in prayer.
And confession, for many wayfarers in this material world, seems much in demand.
The chapel offers confession seven days a week, all day long: Just ring the bell on the confessional door and a priest will appear. (It’s an unusual arrangement: The chapel’s office is on the other side of the confessional, and priests are in there, doing desk work.) The chapel is open all day for silent prayer.
St. Francis is large, with seating for 225. The wall adjoining the mall is glass, so that anyone passing by can see the worshipers. The lights are low, the design clean, and unembellished. A large cross hangs from the ceiling; an Advent wreath with four candles marks the Christmas season.
There is no space to socialize, not even a coat rack, giving the impression that visitors tend to do their business and move on. St. Francis is not a parish, so there are no weddings, baptisms, or funerals here. “Can you imagine coming in with a casket and processing through the mall?” said Wykes, looking every bit the urban priest, wearing a gold hoodie over clerical shirt and collar.
Many of the worshipers are out-of-towners, attending conferences at the Hynes Convention Center. Once, a prince of Liechtenstein wandered in. Another time Wykes spotted actor Jim Caviezel, who played the role of Jesus in the film “The Passion of the Christ.” Then there was the day he recognized a minor actor from the original “Star Trek” series. Wykes, a devout Trekkie, admitted that he was “gaga” when the actor came in and bounded over to meet him.
Perhaps because they happen upon the chapel unexpectedly, visitors often stop in on the spur of the moment.
“There are people who have been away from the church for a long time, and they come back . . . right here, in this little chapel,” said Wykes, a former hospital chaplain. “Confession is right in front of their faces. It’s so available, and you can do it immediately. People feel drawn in.”
He believes the anonymity the chapel offers has resulted in “many life-changing moments” for visitors. He hears the usual “minor” confessions — jealousy, lack of charity — as well as major ones.
“It’s very humbling,” he said. “You see people who have led a life of sin. People who feel that their whole life is empty. They lost their jobs. Their marriage ended. They’re out of money. No one loves them. Coming to confession gives them the opportunity to start a new life. They do this [in a mall] because a lot of people feel that in a parish church, the priest would recognize their voice.”
About half the visitors are regulars. Many live in the neighborhood or work in or near the Prudential Center. Even so, for many, the chapel remains hidden in plain sight.
“Just when I think everyone knows about us, someone says, ‘How long have you been here?’ ” he said.
The answer is 20 years, though the chapel was in another part of the mall before it was redesigned in the early 1990s. Originally founded by the Franciscans, St. Francis Chapel was taken over in 1983 by the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, a congregation that originated in Italy and came to the United States in the 1970s. Their principle missions include spreading the Gospel through retreats and through the media.
“We’re small; people haven’t heard of us,” said Wykes. There are about 40 priests and brothers in the United States and about 200 worldwide.
On a recent Sunday nearly every seat was full at a midday Mass. One visitor was Narcisa Laranjeira of Boston, who came for the first time to honor her mother on the second anniversary of her death.
“I am not a religious person, but I know it was important for my mother,” she said. “I was pleasantly surprised [by the chapel]. I loved the simplicity of it.”
Another was Sara Essonghe, a youth basketball coach who has been coming here for close to 10 years. She says she finds it “an oasis in this crazy world.”
Even at an 8 a.m. Mass on Tuesday, worshipers stream in. They included Mercedes Evans of Cambridge, who arrived in a T-shirt and shorts. “I come after the gym,” she said. “It completes my morning.” Auxilia Goncalves was also there, as she is every morning before starting work as a floor supervisor at the Sheraton Boston Hotel.
David Pogorelc, who owns a real estate investment company, is a frequent worshiper here because he likes the Oblates of the Virgin Mary.
“These guys are really good,” he said.
Pogorelc said he has been thinking about moving his office from downtown to the Back Bay to be closer to the chapel “so I can pray on a daily basis about my decisions, and also to be grateful for everything I have.”
As the Mass was ending, a throng of people filed by outside, many attending the Association For Jewish Studies conference at the Sheraton. The chapel stopped Noam Sienna of Toronto and Justin Lewis of Winnipeg, who plunged into an impromptu academic discussion about it.
“If Jews have a particular affection for one saint, 99 percent of the time it’s St. Francis,” Sienna mused. Lewis agreed, noting that the 13th century saint loved animals and was committed to peace.
“Who doesn’t love St. Francis?” he said.