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LAWRENCE -- After weeks of being limited to serving bagged meals to Lawrence's hungry residents, Cor Unum Meal Center has successfully converted to propane gas, enabling it to resume providing hot meals and dining services for the first time since the Sept. 13 explosions.
Cor Unum, "one heart" in Latin, has served free breakfast and dinner every day of the year since it opened in 2006. It is part of St. Patrick's Parish and is located across the street from the church. Father Paul O'Brien is the pastor of St. Patrick's and chair of Cor Unum.
The meal center functions like a restaurant. Greeters welcome people as they arrive and help them find a table. Patrons eat in a dining room that can sit 80. There is no limit on how much one can eat, but no hot meals can be brought home. However, the center also provides take-home food such as bread or fruit.
Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley joined Father O'Brien, local government officials, and the leaders of utility companies at Cor Unum on Oct. 2 to announce its reopening.
"We know that in the best of times Lawrence struggles to combat systematic poverty and economic injustice. The majority of children in Lawrence at any given time are at risk for hunger," Cardinal O'Malley said.
This risk may well have increased after Sept. 13, when a Colombia Gas natural gas line over-pressurized and caused explosions and fires across Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover.
Cor Unum opened its doors the following day, despite having no electricity or gas. Even when the electricity was restored a few days later, volunteers could not cook hot meals due to the lack of gas. Instead, they gave out bagged food during their regular meal hours -- 6:00-8:00 a.m. breakfast, 4:30-6:30 p.m. dinner -- serving about 250 meals at a time.
After switching from natural gas to propane, Cor Unum can now once again provide its patrons with hot meals and a sit-down dining experience.
"Of the many anxieties people in Lawrence are experiencing in the disaster recovery process, the anxiety of not being able to find a hot meal is now over," the cardinal said.
Mayor Dan Rivera said that ever since the disaster they have tried "to lift up institutions that are important to our community, and give a sense of normalcy back."
"I think the family-style, dignified way in which Cor Unum provides meals for families was missing, and we're so thrilled that it's back. The work that's being done on the street is monumental. The recovery from this disaster is unprecedented," said Rivera.
"I think tonight when they eat their first hot meal in this dining room, a little more normalcy will have returned to Lawrence," Rivera concluded.
Father O'Brien credited Joseph "Joe" Nolan, president of Eversource Energy, for launching the reopening.
"48 hours into this disaster my old friend, Joe Nolan from Eversource, shocked me that he knew how profound this disaster was, how long it was going to take to recover. He also, in the same conversation, had the solution for Cor Unum, and he took me to the vice-president of Colombia Gas to make a start right then," Father O'Brien said.
Nolan said he thought it "appropriate" that Cor Unum was fully reopening on the feast of the guardian angels. He thanked Steve Bryant, president of Colombia Gas, for collaborating on a solution to the meal center's obstacle.
Joe Albanese, founder and CEO of Commodore Builders, was appointed by the governor to be Director of Recovery Operations of Lawrence. He spoke at Cor Unum's reopening about the general recovery effort in Lawrence.
Albanese said the primary goal of the recovery effort is to replace 45 miles of pipe and 6,100 service lines, and they are "determined" to accomplish this by Nov. 19.
He said that when he arrived at Colombia Gas headquarters two weeks ago, there were typically 180 people there each day, whereas today there are more than 3,000. He said they have already laid five miles of pipe and restored 110 services. Nearly 200 crews are now working in the streets.
"What I'm learning today, and over the past couple weeks, is the resiliency of the people of Lawrence," Albanese said, adding that he is "privileged to be part of the solution here."
Many St. Patrick's parishioners are volunteers at Cor Unum, but there are also many volunteers from communities around Lawrence, and some drive from as far away as Rhode Island.
The largest demographic served is families with children, followed by disabled or elderly people, addicts, and the homeless. Anyone is welcome to eat, no questions asked, so long as they behave well.
Father O'Brien said that recently when he was outside the center, he saw people coming to receive to-go bags. Almost everyone ripped their bag open, desperate for the food.
"Even (for) those of us who live in Lawrence, it's hard to get your head around the reality of hunger in this community," Father O'Brien said.
Cor Unum is fully self-sustained and funded entirely from donations. It receives its food supplies through partnerships with retailers and wholesalers.
"Cor Unum is the proof that there's more than enough fresh, nutritious surplus food in this country to feed everybody. Our grand total cost for a restaurant-quality meal is one dollar per meal," Father O'Brien said.
"We have the facility, we have the food. What we need, probably, is more volunteers," he said.
Anyone interested in volunteering at Cor Unum Meal Center can apply at its website, www.corunummealcenter.org/.