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Lawrence parish helps community cope with gas explosion aftermath


A neighbor looks at a home burned in a series of gas explosions in Lawrence, Sept. 14, 2018. Reuters photo/Brian Snyder via Newscom

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LAWRENCE -- Volunteers at St. Patrick Church's Cor Unum Meal Center were serving dinner when multiple natural gas explosions and fires broke out in homes across Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover on Sept. 13.

Speaking to the Pilot on Sept. 14, Father Paul O'Brien, pastor of St. Patrick Church, called the events "an experience out of a disaster movie," and said people were "overwhelmed and shell-shocked."

Built in 2006, Cor Unum Meal Center serves free breakfast 6-8 a.m. and dinner 4:30-6:30 p.m. every day of the year. The morning after the explosions, Cor Unum was open again for breakfast. Since the gas and electricity were shut off, volunteers provided bagged meals to their patrons.

On Sept. 15, the Cor Unum volunteers distributed all refrigerated food items so nothing would be wasted due to lack of electricity. Cor Unum has continued to distribute bagged meals during their breakfast and dinner hours, but they have not been able to provide their usual dining services without gas.

Over the weekend, after St. Patrick's Church was inspected and deemed safe for occupancy, only a few people came to Mass on Saturday because they were still under evacuation orders, but more returned on Sunday.

Father O'Brien said people felt grateful that the church was still standing and they were able to worship there.

St. Patrick's Church is trying to find alternate energy sources for Cor Unum and the church, parish offices, and rectory, he said.


"We ask everyone to be patient. We are, in fact, working really hard to come up with a solution for the replacement of gas temporarily. We feel confident that we're making very good progress and we'll announce developments as they unfold," Father O'Brien said.

Lawrence Catholic Academy was closed on Sept. 14 and Sept. 17, along with public schools. The school, which is fueled by oil, was able to reopen on Sept. 18.

"Getting kids back in school and back into the routine in the midst of all the other chaos that's going on is a huge blessing," Father O'Brien said, speaking to the Pilot on Sept. 19.

The school held an assembly on Sept. 19 to talk about their experiences during the emergency.

"We were able to talk about how they felt, what their reactions were. And a plus of that was kids were able to hear that different students had very different experiences and that our job is to listen to one another and to help one another talk this through," Father O'Brien said.

The students talked about the impact the emergency had, and is continuing to have, on their parents, and how they can help their families deal with the aftermath.

"A huge blessing of a Catholic school is that we could come together in the context of our faith and share what we know about God in the midst of all this and talk explicitly about how would Jesus have us work to support one another through all of the future," Father O'Brien said.

He said the challenge Lawrence is facing now is that the gas will be off "indefinitely," which could mean months, and people are anxious about how they will cook and stay warm during the winter.

"Often in a disaster situation you can Google whatever your disaster was and figure out what other communities have done when they experienced this. You can't Google this, 'city without gas,'" Father O'Brien said.

Information has been "somewhat scarce," but St. Patrick's has been using WGUA, a 24-hour Spanish Catholic radio station, to share news with Lawrence residents, the majority of whom do not speak English as a first language. In this way they have been able to communicate about the government, the gas company, and how to pray and talk to each other about the situation.

"Having the radio station has been wonderful," Father O'Brien said, adding that it "has been a great way that the Church has been able to be a positive communications vehicle for everybody in Lawrence."

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