100,000 meals later: Cor Unum marks first year

LAWRENCE -- More than 100,000 meals later, the Cor Unum Meal Center, operated by St. Patrick Parish, marked its first year Sept. 30 with a special dinner for the community members it serves.

“Rather than invite the people who helped build it, we decided to celebrate with our guests,” said Diane Jarvis, the meal center’s director.

Jarvis said before the center opened she and the other members of the parish researched the needs of the community by interviewing local social service providers.

“We built this then knowing of the tremendous nutritional needs in Lawrence,” said Father Paul O’Brien, the pastor of St. Patrick’s. “Now, there is a tremendously super need in Lawrence.”

Father O’Brien said the 90-seat center started out serving dinner and breakfast three days a week. By the summer, the center had ramped up to seven days a week.

The original concept for Cor Unum was to provide one seating per meal but, as it has evolved, the center can now serve 250 meals for dinner and 150 meals for breakfast seamlessly, he said.

The model is based on a fine dining restaurant, Father O’Brien said. There are greeters at the door, who bring the diners to their seats. Waiters and waitresses take the orders, pour drinks and bring guests’ food to the table. When the dinner is finished, they clear the plates and ask what the guests would like for dessert. Other volunteers clear tables to allow the wait staff to devote their full attention to guests.

Jarvis said the anniversary menu included shrimp cocktail; hummus with flatbread; baked brie with cranberries, apricots and almonds; roasted turkey with all the fixings and a variety of desserts.

“The goal of the center is not just to feed the hungry, but to feed the hungry excellently,” Father O’Brien said. “No other facility in the United States provides like we do. We are the most elegant, with the best flowers, the best music, the cleanest restrooms and the highest quality food.”

He added, “When you provide the people who have the least the best available is when you live Christ’s love most directly.”

Over the last year, Father O’Brien said he has watched the changes in the center’s guests as they responded to the positive atmosphere at Cor Unum.

“So many people in the inner city have no experience of beauty in their lives,” he said.

At the same time, the harsh reality of poverty is always present.

Perhaps most disturbing, Father O’Brien said, is the number of unaccompanied children the center serves everyday.

“Every day 89-90 kids come here to eat who are never accompanied by an adult. In effect, some as young as 4 and 5 years old are running their own lives every day,” he said.

Father O’Brien pointed out that the Catholic identity of the center plays an integral part in its mission. There are prayers before meals and the volunteers freely share with the guests that their service at Cor Unum flows from actively living their Christian faith.

“It is a joy to serve Christ in all of his disguises,” said Sister Janis C. Perrault, PM, a wait staff volunteer and a member of the pastoral staff.