Catholic Charities’ Yawkey Center dedicated

DORCHESTER — Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley cut the ribbon to mark the opening of Catholic Charities’ new Yawkey Center April 26, joined by center clients, public officials and Red Sox great Johnny Pesky.

“The work of Catholic Charities in the greater Boston area is of great importance to the families, adults and children in need of services, particularly people newly arrived from other countries,” said Cardinal O’Malley.

“We all share in the benefits of the programs that Catholic Charities offers at the Yawkey Center. Helping people to realize their God-given potential and building strong communities is truly the work of the Lord and the work of the Church,” he said.

“The Yawkey Center, thanks to the efforts of many generous and dedicated people, will be a center of hope for this neighborhood and the entire community. As people of faith we are called to help those less fortunate and to inspire others to also answer that call,” he said.

“Today we are witness to the power of God’s love in the hearts and minds of those who have made the Yawkey Center a reality,” said the cardinal, who also offered remarks in French to the many members of the Haitian community gathered there — the center will be also be the new home of the Haitian Multi-Service Center.

The center, a 44,000-square foot facility, was built from the ground up at 185 Columbia Road between the Dorchester neighborhoods of Grove Hall and Geneva-Bowdoin. It will serve 24,000 children, teens, families and elders from the neighborhood and surrounding communities each year, said Virginia Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston.

“The Yawkey Center allows us to expand and better provide a myriad of services to a diverse and ever-changing neighborhood,” said Father J. Bryan Hehir, the president of Catholic Charities, which was founded in 1903 by Archbishop John Williams.

“We also now have a more visible, more accessible location on Columbia Road that will undoubtedly result in a welcomed increase in program participation from neighborhood residents,” he said.

One of programs of the center is the provision of emergency food, said Norma Wallace, an initial response worker at the center.

Monday through Friday, the center distributes 25 to 30 brown paper bags packed with meat and groceries to feed a family for three to four days, she said. “So people can get over the hump.”

Wallace, who has worked for Catholic Charities for 22 years, said the most troubling trend is the increase in requests for financial assistance.

In the past, people were hesitant to request money, she said. Now, the center receives more than 100 phone calls every day, in addition to a flood of requests by e-mail.

The $11 million project was funded by a variety of individuals and foundations, including a lead gift of $5 million from the Yawkey Foundation, the legacy of Thomas and Jean Yawkey, who owned the Boston Red Sox from 1933 to 2003, she said.

“The trustees of the Yawkey Foundation are pleased to support the establishment of this new center, which will provide enhanced social and family services for more than 24,000 residents of Dorchester and surrounding communities,” said John Harrington, both a trustee and the president of the foundation.

Gesturing to the archbishop, Harrington said he was a little nervous to see Cardinal O’Malley after his visit to Rome. “For a kid brought up in parochial schools, I never dreamed I’d be sitting next to a cardinal,” he added.

Harrington said he and the other trustees were mindful of their own immigrant heritage as they drove through the surrounding neighborhoods — where many of them had grown up — and checked on the progress of construction.

“We are all sons and daughters of immigrants,” he said.

It was a theme he echoed when he called up to the podium the former shortstop, manager, coach and instructor for the Red Sox, Johnny Pesky. “In 1942, John came to Boston as a young Catholic boy, emigrating all the way from Oregon.”

The member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame climbed through his row of chairs nimbly despite his broken left leg, still healing in a hard cast after a spring training accident. Then, shaking Harrington’s hand he said, “Thank you, John, I wish you were still signing my checks again.”

Pesky said his history with Catholic Charities began when he and his wife went to see the priest who had married them because they could not have children.

The priest suggested they try Catholic Charities’ adoption services. “I remember when we walked in there and my wife fell in love with the most beautiful boy,” he said.

“We took him home and he’s been with us for some 50 years now,” he added.

The center was actually opened for business in January, said Father Hehir, who told the audience they should appreciate that they were not asked to sit outside for a ceremony in the middle of the winter.

Referring to the beautiful sunshine for the ceremony, Father Hehir said whenever the weather is good, he tells people it is because of his prayers.

Whenever the weather is bad, he said, he reminds people that he is in sales, not management.