Archdiocese funds to jumpstart Lawrence meal center project

LAWRENCE — Father Paul B. O’Brien, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Lawrence, together with Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley announced Sept. 22 that the Archdiocese of Boston will provide up to $500,000 that will ease the plight of many of the hungry in the poorest city in Massachusetts.

The funds will give the final push needed to begin construction of The Cor Unum Meal Center, a 5,600 square foot facility that will provide up to 750 hot meals per day, year round, to the hungry living in the Lawrence area.

Lawrence is the poorest city in Massachusetts and one of the poorest in the United States—More than 24 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Among school-aged children, 75 percent are identified as being at-risk for hunger.

“When you hear the number that 75 percent of children are at risk for hunger, it is stunning,” stated Father O’Brien, noting that “when you understand that there is so much hunger there, it sheds light on people’s problems and their behaviors.”

“If people don’t have food and nutrition, they aren’t going to learn, they aren’t going to function,” he continued.

“The Cor Unum Meal Center will welcome all people in a dignified atmosphere and provide a safe environment for the body, soul, and spirit of all who are in need,” said Father O’Brien, who is chairperson of the Cor Unum Meal Center.

“The Lord teaches us:  ‘Whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me,’” said Archbishop O’Malley. “Too many people go hungry each day. Children, parents, and families are all looking for a simple meal to sustain them one more day.  Cor Unum is a remarkable development that will weave a fabric of care and love for the neediest among us.”

The idea for the meal center was conceived on Thanksgiving Day in 2001, said Father O’Brien, to address the unmet needs of the hungry in Lawrence.

Together with 15 parishioners, Father O’Brien invited several homeless people “who were living on a hill behind the church and in an abandoned cement factory” to share in their Thanksgiving dinner.  Once the meal ended, Father O’Brien and his parishioners “began wishing hot meals could be served to the most needy every day.”

Arming themselves with as much information as they could about the problem of hunger in Lawrence, Father O’Brien and the 15 members of the Cor Unum team began speaking to those who were already feeding the hungry to determine “how big the issue really was and what was already being done about it.”

According to Father O’Brien, they found that many “wonderful resources” were available, but everyone “unanimously agreed that much more needed to be done.”

After speaking with community leaders, parishioners and other organizations, “there evolved the plan for a meal center,” Father O’Brien explained, which was ultimately named Cor Unum, Latin for “one heart.” The center will be located in South Lawrence, a place where there is currently no facility to feed the hungry.

St. Patrick Parish will donate the land needed to build the center.

To date, nearly $425,000 of the $1.4 million needed to start construction has been raised through the generosity of individuals, corporations and foundations. The center was able to raise an additional $475,000 in 2004 through its innovative “Labels Are For Jars” program. [See related story, this page.] This week the Archdiocese of Boston announced that it would commit to fund the remaining construction costs so that the project can begin to move from dream to reality.

According to spokesman Terrence C. Donilon, the archdiocese will use some of the proceeds from sales of reconfiguration properties to fund the project.

“[Archbishop O’Malley] felt strongly that we should use some of those resources to further the mission of the Church,” said Donilon.

“Father Paul O’Brien and the wonderful Cor Unum and ‘Labels are for Jars’ teams have made possible what most people would find impossible to achieve,” Archbishop O’Malley said. “Soon, this site will be filled with people caring for people. We thank you for having the courage and the commitment to meet the needs of our brothers and sisters in Lawrence.”

“This really gets at the heart of what the archbishop feels we should be doing as a Church,” said Donilon. “The work they are doing up there [in Lawrence] is unbelievable.”

Ground will be broken for the meal center this fall. Construction is expected to take approximately six months, said Father O’Brien.

Volunteers will play a large part in the organization, providing all essential daily functions, such as cooking, serving and cleaning. The only paid staff member will be the center’s director, he said.

“Cor Unum is the proof that people who are committed to creatively fighting hunger in the United States can achieve remarkable success. We believe that the right to nutrition is a fundamental human right.  With Cor Unum, thousands of people in Lawrence will no longer be denied that right,” asserted Father O’Brien.

“The very heart of our faith is to feed every person when he or she is hungry,” he noted, pointing out that Jesus Himself asks His followers to feed the hungry. “I believe that, arguably, it will be a greater grace for those who volunteer than for those who receive.”

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