EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 28, 2007

One year, 100,000 meals; Cor Unum reaches milestone feeding the hungry

By Yadira Betances , Staff Writer

LAWRENCE - There was no fanfare, no confetti, no balloons or noisemakers.

But the moment was no less special at Cor Unum meal center, when at 7:45 a.m. yesterday, a young man walked through the door and became the 100,000th person to receive a meal.

"It's amazing because when we first started, 100,000 was so far off," said Diane Jarvis, meal center director. "The number shows there really is a need."

Cor Unum, a Latin word meaning "One Heart" is a ministry of St. Patrick Parish. The $1.5 million center opened last September at 191 Salem St. with a special guest, late-night television show host Conan O'Brien, with whom the Rev. Paul O'Brien roomed at Harvard University.

The center serves breakfast and dinner 365 days a year, averaging about 300 meals a day.

The Rev. O'Brien, pastor at St. Patrick, credits the success of the center to volunteers who cook, serve and clean up, as well as area bakeries, restaurants and stores that donate food. Most of the food comes from the Greater Boston Food Bank, he said.

Money to operate Cor Unum also comes from the sale of thought-provoking T-shirts and caps produced by Labels are for Jars.

Cor Unum guests are greeted at the door and escorted to 10 round tables in the dining room decorated with plants, tableclothes and white china with cutlery folded inside a napkin.

Instead of going through a food line with a tray, guests are waited on at their tables.

High school junior Angel Rivera, 17, said she goes to Cor Unum for breakfast and dinner. Yesterday, Rivera who was joined by classmate Angel Cabrera, 16, sat near the kitchen eating cereal, a bagel and hard-boiled eggs and drinking orange juice.

"The food here is healthy, and they make you feel like a family," said Rivera, a junior at Lawrence High.

Maria Campos said she would have gone to work without eating breakfast if Cor Unum wasn't open. She heard about the program while attending St. Patrick Church, and yesterday was her third time attending.

"You feel like part of the family," said Campos before rushing off to her job at Fidelity House.

Brianna Bowman, 5, looked around to make sure her mother was not looking before taking some of the whipped cream off the dessert that sat next to her shepherd's pie.

Brianna's mother, Tara, 32, of Methuen, noticed anyway and just grinned.

Bowman and her daughter have been coming to Cor Unum for six months. She also has a son, Douglas Currier, 14.

"I can't make ends meet," said Bowman, who has rheumatoid arthritis and only works several hours a week.

"This is awesome. I like it because they have good food; they don't treat you like you're a poor person, and I like that," said Bowman, a caterer at Mill City Gourmet.

The center is about more than just eliminating hunger.

"It's also about nourishing the spirit," said Rev. O'Brien, who often shows up to talk to the guests.

Rev. O'Brien thought it was a coincidence that Cor Unum's anniversary comes on the feast of St. Vincent de Paul, a 17th century saint who dedicated his life to working for the poor.

During the construction of the building, the parish needed an extra $250,000 to finish the project. Rev. O'Brien asked the Sisters of Charity who run the school to pray to St. Vincent de Paul. At the end of the nine days of prayers, a woman donated the money.

"I saw that as a sign," he said.

Peggy Oliveto sees the anniversary date as God's plan for volunteers to reflect on.

"Here we are helping the poor, and he is smiling on this place," Oliveto said. "It (volunteering) makes me get closer to God because I'm part of a group who are feeding the poor and offering compassion. It's like a calling, and you're rewarded spiritually."

Volunteers include teenagers who are fulfilling their high school community service requirements, retirees and amateur cooks.

Gerry Bois, 71, retired two years ago and has been volunteering at Cor Unum since November. "This is the best experience of my life," said Bois, as he stopped sweeping the floor after the breakfast rush.

Bois gets up at 3 a.m. to be at the center by 4:30 a.m.

"Before I started here, I thought all the homeless were bums, but now I realize they are human beings just like everyone else who just happen to be down on their luck."

If you go:

What: Cor Unum first anniversary dinner. Menu includes shrimp cocktail, hummus, flatbread, baked brie with cranberries, apricots and almonds, roasted turkey with all the trimmings, squash casserole, and an assortment of desserts.

When: Sunday, 4 to 6:30 p.m.

Where: Cor Unum, 191 Salem St., Lawrence

Need list:

Foods: Iced tea mix, orange juice, grocery store gift certificates, canned fruit, coffee, flour, sugar, vegetable oil, sugar substitute, ketchup, mustard, Parmesan cheese, eggs, pancake mix and syrup.

Supplies: Office supply store gift cards, home improvement store gift cards, 55-gallon trash bags, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, parchment paper, storage and freezer bags, disposable gloves, hand-washing liquid, paper towels, napkins, bleach and Windex.