After two months, Cor Unum meal center still expanding

LAWRENCE — On a cold December evening Lawrence residents queued up for good food, friendly service and a homey atmosphere. The menu on Dec. 5 was meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, salad with hard-boiled egg, carrots and dressing, baked apples with cinnamon sprinkled on top, assorted desserts and cheeseburgers for the children. Guests are welcomed, seated at round tables of eight and served. The dining room is large, bright and open with high ceilings and peach colored walls.

But they weren’t waiting for a seat at the latest home-style restaurant in town but that of the Cor Unum Meal Center of St. Patrick Parish.

The restaurant feel of Cor Unum is part of the meal center’s draw, along with the tasty meals and kind volunteer staff.

“The people are nice here. They bring everything,” said Charles Woodard, who has come to the center every day since it opened. “It’s about time Lawrence had a place like that. It’s the best thing to ever happen to Lawrence.”

Everyone at Woodard’s table nodded and murmured words of agreement. Woodard went on to say that he and his wife and have been coming to Cor Unum since it opened.

He and other Lawrence residents often have to choose between putting gas in their car or food on their table, he added.

One-third of Lawrence’s 82,000 residents live below the poverty line. The average per capita income is just over $14,000. Many live on low incomes with high housing costs and do not have the money to buy food. One study has estimated that 70 percent of children under the age of 18 are at risk for hunger in Lawrence.

Those who come to the center include families, children, the homeless and the elderly, said St. Patrick’s pastor Father Paul B. O’Brien.

“It’s become a home for lots and lots of children,” he said.

The Cor Unum Meal Center has served over 9,000 dinners since opening on Sept. 30. Originally, the center was open only three nights a week but has since expanded service to six nights a week— every evening but Wednesday. Soon organizers plan to expand dinner service to seven days a week. They plan to eventually offer daily breakfast and lunch.

Organizers say the center feeds 250-300 people at each meal. Sunday evenings are the busiest because at that time no other service in Lawrence offers a hot meal. The center’s goal is never to turn away anyone in need.

“I love to be a servant of the Lord,” said Muriel Neveux, a volunteer at the center. “I found an opportunity to serve people.”

Neveux, a retired registered nurse and longtime Lawrence resident, said that the service is not just about preparing meals or dishing food onto a plate. The people who come to Cor Unum get fed spiritually as well.

Neveux signed up to serve one meal over a month ago and has been coming often ever since, she said.

“You see things that need to be done and you do them,” she added. “Everybody pitches in.”

Over 400 people have already volunteered to help at the center and many groups have offered to come and serve a meal.

Maureen Burke volunteers at the center every Tuesday with her 8-year-old daughter and 12- and 14-year-old sons.

“They’ve got lots of other things like karate, basketball and CCD, but I think this is important,” she said. “It’s important for them to see there’s more to life than PlayStation 3.”

Burke and her husband want their children to understand that the people who come to the meal center are exactly like them, except that they are hungry.

The idea for the center was born out of Father O’Brien’s desire to aid a struggling single mother who turned to the parish for help 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 longtime friends. 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.

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 construction of the center cost $1.5 million and Cor Unum has raised an additional $500,000 to cover operating costs.

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

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

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