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LYNN -- Cardinal Seán O'Malley visited the youth center of St. Joseph Church on Nov. 9 to see how it has grown since its inception in 2017.
"The cardinal was the one who had this idea of opening a youth center in the area here," said Father Wellington Oliveira, St. Joseph's parochial vicar and youth center coordinator, Nov. 13.
He said Cardinal O'Malley's idea was to help children of immigrant families, whose parents might work multiple jobs and "are not present in the lives of their children." At the youth center they can learn skills to help them assimilate into American culture and advance in their education, so they can go on to pursue careers.
The center also provides a safe environment for youth to spend time after school "in order to make them less vulnerable to violence, to drugs, to gangs," Father Oliveira said. He noted that Lynn is one of the most violent cities in Massachusetts, and the parish is on one of the city's worst streets.
"The program is, in some way, a presence of the Church," Father Oliveira said, giving children and youth "not only a way for them to improve English or academic development, but also for them to feel that the Church is a place for them."
The parish has its own buses that transport children from Lynn schools to the youth center, which is located in St. Joseph Parish's former convent. There are currently 114 active students in the youth center's fall program, ranging from grade one to grade 10.
Each afternoon, the children receive a free meal and then break up into age groups to participate in workshops. These include classes in music, cooking, educational technology, and, for those who need it, English as a second language. Tutors provide assistance with homework and classrooms are equipped with tablets and SMART Boards. Each age group visits the chapel once a week for prayer and catechesis. On Fridays, the parish priests lead recreational activities, sometimes taking the children on field trips.
Father Oliveira and Father Israel Rodriguez, administrator of St. Joseph Church, led Cardinal O'Malley on a tour of the youth center facilities, none of which existed a year ago, according to Father Oliveira. They showed him the dining room, the kitchen, classrooms, the chapel, and the game room, introducing him to volunteers along the way.
After the tour, the group went to the parish hall, where about 115 children greeted the cardinal with a song in Spanish, praising the Virgin Mary.
"We want to thank you for your presence. It's an honor for us to have you with us and to see the reality of the center," Father Rodriguez told the cardinal.
Groups of children and teenagers came forward to express their gratitude to the cardinal for helping create the center. They presented him with flowers and a framed poster bearing their signatures.
"I'm so glad to be here tonight and to see how much the center has progressed. It was not long ago that it was just an idea and we hoped that it would be able to come to fruition," Cardinal O'Malley told the assembly.
He said part of the center's mission is to help young people learn to be part of Christ's family and discover the call to be his disciples.
"Discipleship, we learn ... the way you learn a language, by being part of a community that speaks that language. And so we are called to follow Jesus as brothers and sisters and form a community where the way we take care of each other, serve each other, forgive each other, is a sign to the world that the Lord is in our midst and that we are striving to truly be part of this family," he said.
Cardinal O'Malley went on to say that "only the vision of faith" can help people understand their lives and their "mission to take care of each other."
"We're so grateful for the existence of the center. We know that many blessings are going to come out of the efforts here. We are grateful to all of the volunteers and the workers who work along with Father Wellington and Father Israel to make this such a vibrant center. So, we pray for the Lord's blessing upon all of you and your families and we hope that the center will continue to grow by leaps and bounds," he said.
"This is a wonderful start here and we're so grateful to all of you and we want to congratulate you on the progress that has been made and say how hopeful we are for the future," he said.
Youth center volunteers served dinner for everyone in the parish hall, and later invited Cardinal O'Malley to open a pinata full of candy for the children.