Lawrence meal center opens this week

LAWRENCE -- The Cor Unum Meal Center, which will open on Sept. 30, has brought together a community, a cardinal and a late-night comedian.

At the hub of the project, which will provide more than 700 meals daily to the needy in the poorest city in the state, is Father Paul B. O’Brien, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Lawrence.

The idea was born out of Father O’Brien’s desire to help a struggling single mother who approached the parish because she had difficulty holding a job. She had once served time in jail, and employers acted as though she wore a shirt labeled “prisoner.”

Father O’Brien took action by reaching out to the Archdiocese of Boston, his parishioners, the Lawrence community and several long-time friends, including his former Harvard roommate, television host and Brookline native Conan O’Brien. Together the group created a campaign, Labels are for Jars, to feed the poor and combat societal labeling.

The organization sells black T-shirts bearing labels like “jock” or “addict” in plastic jars with a slot in the lid. Once the shirt is removed, the purchaser is encouraged to fill the jar with money to be sent back as a contribution to support the meal center.

Father O’Brien announced the success of the project and completion of the meal center at a press conference on Sept. 25 where organizers had ribbon cutting and breaking of the bread ceremonies. The center will invite people to dine restaurant-style. They will enter, be seated at eight-person tables and have their hot meals brought to them by volunteer staff.

“When people come to Cor Unum, they’re our guests, and we will serve them as such,” said Diane Jarvis, director of the center.

Cor Unum will begin by serving three dinners each week and work its way up to three meals a day, seven days a week. Organizers estimate that the center will feed 250 people at each meal. Their goal is never to turn away anyone in need.

Father O’Brien spoke candidly about the serious socio-economic difficulties in Lawrence, a city of 82,000 people, one-third of whom live below the poverty line. The average per capita income is just over $14,000. Almost 70 percent of Lawrence residents are Hispanic, most of them recent immigrants.

Many people in Lawrence live on low incomes with high housing costs, and sometimes they must choose between buying food or paying their bills, he said.

“Hunger is a prevalent issue in Lawrence. At any given time in Lawrence three out of four children under age 18 are at risk for hunger,” Father O’Brien said. “We are going to try to eliminate the reality of hunger from people’s lives.”

The Cor Unum building, constructed on the site of a former parking lot owned by St. Patrick’s, consists of a state-of-the-art kitchen, dining room, food pantry and storage rooms for the Labels are for Jars inventory.

The construction of the center cost $1.5 million and Cor Unum has raised an additional $500,000 to cover operating costs. The Labels are for Jars program brought in $775,000, the Archdiocese of Boston donated $900,000 to the effort, and the rest came from various individuals, corporations and foundations.

The organization also has a partnership with the Greater Boston Food Bank, which will provide 80 percent of the food served there.

Father O’Brien said he hopes the center will feed people both nutritionally and spiritually.

Father Richard M. Erikson, vicar general and moderator of the curia, agreed, saying that the Church must both care for people’s needs and give them spiritual support.

“What a wonderful moment this is in the life of the city of Lawrence, but also in the life of the Archdiocese of Boston,” he said. “This moment is a snapshot of what we are all about ? reaching out to those who are most in need and providing a visible presence of the Lord in the community.”

Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, who could not be present because he was in Rome, sent a videotaped message. In it he said that the meal center has been a “tremendous blessing” to the archdiocese and for him personally.

“Cor Unum has unique importance because it is so creatively and comprehensively addressing the reality of hunger in Lawrence,” he said.

“Jesus taught that there would always be hungry people among us. He also taught that there do not need to be hungry people among us. People with food can feed people without food,” he added. “The reality of hunger in the United States and in Lawrence is obviously complex, but the basic solution is that easy. We need to feed one another.”

After the press conference, Conan O’Brien answered questions from reporters in the meal center’s kitchen. He came to bring more attention to the good work that his friend, Father O’Brien, and others are doing in Lawrence, he said.

He applauded Father O’Brien’s effort to “allow people to eat with dignity” and stressed that many people have been working hard to make the center possible.

O’Brien said that he was grateful for the visit to his hometown, which caused him to face the reality of poverty.

“There are people that are hungry,” he said. “It’s hard for me to believe that. Part of me is shocked that in the 21st century there are people who are hungry.”

O’Brien added that he plans to give the same reality check to his daughter, now 2, when she’s older by bringing her back to the Cor Unum Meal Center. He said he would serve food but joked that he cannot cook.

“I can make tuna fish on toast ? Bumblebee tuna on toast, and I can boil Ramen noodles. That’s the limit of my ability. This center would shut down in about 15 minutes,” he said.

Instead, O’Brien said he will participate by serving guests at the meal center and telling jokes.

“That would probably shut the center down too,” he joked.

Not to be upstaged by the same-surnamed star, Father O’Brien quipped back that when O’Brien does come back, he will have to do the “grungiest, most disgusting” work.

The volunteers at Cor Unum and Labels are for Jars are an essential part of the effort, organizers said.

“We hope more people will get involved with our project so that we may move ahead in working to feed the hungry in Lawrence,” said Mary Ellen Mills, who is a leader of Labels are for Jars.

Already, parishioners at St. Patrick’s have rallied around the center and over 150 have volunteered to cook and serve meals, Father O’Brien said.

“Our mission continues,” he added. “Cor Unum and Labels are for Jars will continue to work and work to raise the money to fund this place.”

Sister Jean Wilson, SC, who volunteers at St. Patrick’s rectory, said she is excited about the opening of the Cor Unum Meal Center on Sept. 30.

“This is a dream come true,” she said. “I’m looking forward to Saturday night when things really get started.”

More information about the Cor Unum Meal Center and the Labels Are for Jars program is available at