Program #0078 for Monday, June 27, 2011: Fr. Paul O’Brien

June 27, 2011

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Today’s host(s): Scot Landry

Today’s guest(s): Father Paul O’Brien, Pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Lawrence

Today’s topics: The work of Fr. Paul O’Brien in the poorest city in Massachusetts

Summary of today’s show: Fr. Paul O’Brien joins Scot Landry to discuss the work of the Church in Lawrence, the poorest city in Massachusetts, providing innovative and successful answers to the problems plaguing the community, including the Cor Unum Meal Center, the Labels Are For Jars program, and Lawrence Catholic Academy.

1st segment: Scot said Cardinal Seán in his pastoral letter this month praised the Church in Boston for how she does the corporal works of mercy and encouraged the Church to do better at the spiritual works of mercy. Scot said St. Patrick Parish in Lawrence is one of the best examples.

He welcomed Fr. Paul O’Brien, pastor for the parish, to the show. Scot noted that Fr. Paul was ordained in 1991, 20 years ago last week. Fr. Paul said he experienced the call to the priesthood out of the blue at a Mass during his freshman year in college. He believes God had been calling him, but he wasn’t paying attention. He heard the call specifically to the diocesan priesthood, despite he had grown up in a Jesuit parish. Starting from that Mass, for the next couple of years, the feeling didn’t go away and he knew it was a real call. By the end of college, he decided to enter seminary to discern. He went to St. John’s Seminary for one year of pre-theology and then to the Pontifical North American College for five years in Rome.

Fr. Paul said he received a good education in theology and philosophy. The formation program allowed him to serve in Rome and then in different parts of the world during the long summer breaks. He did in-depth pastoral work in different settings. He worked in Calcutta with Mother Teresa, in Hungary with her sisters, and in East Germany. He was able to visit many other places and understood how God’s kingdom unfolds in places than Boston.

Mother Teresa’s view of the world has affected his priesthood very profoundly. She knew him and his limitations very well, and Fr. Paul said she helped him to break through selfishness and see people the way Christ sees them.

Fr. Paul attended Mt Alvernia Academy in Chestnut Hill, which was the best Catholic education. He attended public and secular schools from then. That education was the formational foundation for his early life.

Fr. Paul said his call was unusual compared to his peers in seminary. He believes they had better skills at listening to God in prayer, as opposed to talking at God. He has a Scripture-based spirituality, which allows him to reflect on the Word of God and sit in his presence, to ask Him what He is saying to Him. He does hear God speaking to him about himself and the world through Scripture.

2nd segment: Fr. Paul said his first assignment was in Concord, Mass., at St. Bernard’s Parish. He was Secretary for Pastoral Services of the Archdiocese for 3 years in 1996 and administrator of St. Lawrence Parish in Chestnut Hill. He also lived at St. James in Chinatown. He became Pastor at St. Patrick in Lawrence 10 years ago.

When at the Archdiocese he also planned Pilgrimage 2000 in the year 2000, which began with an event at Foxboro Stadium and ended with an event at Fenway Park.

His current assignment is in Lawrence, the economically poorest community in Massachusetts. It’s 70% Hispanic. About 75% of children are born to women who are not married. The average per capita income is $16,000 and a third of people live below the poverty line. About 80% speak a language other than English at home. More than 50% were born outside the United States. Lawrence also has a high cost of housing so much of their money is going to pay for a home.

When he arrived at St. Patrick’s they had a large food pantry run by the St. Vincent de Paul. They delivered bags of families to hundreds of people per month. He said people may be working two or three jobs, but don’t make enough to pay for housing, utilities, and food. About 75% of kids are at risk for hunger, which means that they don’t necessarily know where the next meal is coming from. When it comes to a choice between housing, heat, and food, the food is the first thing that goes. People spend their money on cheap, non-nutritious food so they have the highest rate of obese and overweight kids.

He decided to attack hunger in a different way. People from the parish had put together a Thanksgiving lunch for some homeless people living in the neighborhood’s streets. They wanted to figure out a way to feed them every day with nutritious and adequate food. They believed their must be a way to find enough food in this country to feed these people. It’s harder to solve the breakdown of the family, violence in the city, or bad education than it is to feed them. If people are hungry, how can you solve the weightier problems.

They approached everyone working on the problem of hunger in Lawrence and learned that everyone thought much had to be done than was being done by all the various charitable groups. They decided that they could only approach the solution by building a dedicated building for a permanent space to feed people every day. Because they had no money, they planned what they would do if money was no object. They planned to serve the best restaurant-quality meals, they would serve the meals, they would have a beautiful atmosphere, there would be nice music playing. They ended up with all of that plus a mammoth kitchen to serve as many meals as needed.

When you don’t have enough food, it’s a spiritually demeaning reality. They want to provide an experience that uplifts their dignity. Their philosophy has been that people who have the least should have the very best in every way in every form of love.

They had remarkable success with planning and fundraising. When they would sit down with people and communicate the reality of Lawrence’s hunger and then show their solution, a high percentage of people would say, “How can we help?” Within two years they raised almost $1million. From that Thanksgiving dinner to the opening of Cor Unum was five years, but it seems to be very quick.

3rd segment: Cor Unum has served more than 775,000 people since September 2006. They serve breakfast and dinner 365 days per year. They serve more than 200,000 meals per year. They have partnerships with the Greater Boston Food Banks as well as wholesale and retail food distributors who give them their excess at little or no cost. They spend about $25,000 per year on food to produce 200,000 meals, about a dime per meal. They have one paid employee and rely on volunteers for everything else. The total budget was $215,000 last year, about $1 per meal. It shows that there’s no excuse for hunger in this country.

They have about 600 regular volunteers and thousands who come through in a one-shot experience. They need a couple dozen per day. They need servers, buspeople, food servers, and cooks. There is something for everyone in the family to do.

Summer is their busiest season because all the kids who rely on public school meals for their primary nutrition through the year aren’t getting them. Plus volunteers take vacation, so they have the highest number of meals served and the least number of volunteers. They are looking for summer volunteers to just come in with no orientation needed. Call 978-688-8900 or go to the website.

The dining room seats 80 or 90 at a time and the seating operates just like a restaurant. After the meal, they give them food to take with them as a takeout. They found if you serve a robust breakfast and dinner and give them something to take with them, that suffices and allows them to prepare for dinner in the middle of the day.

Some people rely on them every day, including the disabled, senior citizens, addicts. Most of their people are working folks so they get more people at the beginning and end of the month. As people get to the end of each paycheck, they come in for meals. They also see families who will be there for a while, get on their feet, get in trouble again and come back. Cor Unum provides a safety net.

Cor Unum means “one heart.” It’s a predominantly Spanish speaking neighborhood. If they had used a Spanish name, there is residual reacism in the community. So they chose Latin as a neutral ground. The one heart shows that they are one in Christ.

One way that Cor Unum is funded is the Labels are For Jars program. It’s a non-profit organization that Fr. Paul started. The aim was to raise money from outside Lawrence. They designed t-shirts with images of labels on jelly jars with labels that are looked-down upon. They say things like addict, ex-con, etc. The shirts allow people to start a conversation. The shirts come in a collection jar which is intended to allow you to collect money. A filled jar should be about $100. They expanded to hats and baseball shirts with Red Sox players’ names on them.

They’ve made $3 million in profit since 2004. The biggest jar return they’ve had is $300,000. Some jars had $5,000. It covers most of the operating expenses of Cor Unum. They’ve set up a network through the US of people working very actively to fund Cor Unum. People have started to come to them during the recession, because they want to help people who are hurting.

It is predominantly youth oriented. They find that kids communicate good things like this to adults very actively.

4th segment: Lawrence Catholic Academy was formed one year ago through the merger of St. Patrick’s School and Our Lady of Good Counsel’s school in Methuen. Fr. Paul said they should have done this a decade ago. Rather than see Catholic education decline, they’ve seen it grow. Our Lady of Good Counsel was going to close because there weren’t enough students. They decided to stop the closing and be ambitious about Catholic education in Lawrence. It has a nursery school through Grade 8 and they hope to make it the best predominantly Spanish-speaking school in America.

The school has a greater enrollment than the two previous schools combined and all of their grade levels are full. They have been able to re-hire all of the old faculty. They’ve taken steps ahead in curriculum. They also have a very talented board helping them move the school ahead. They have every reason to hope that they will solve all of the big problems that they recognized.

Fr. Paul said if you are not shooting for the very best, how can you expect positive results. It’s very important for it be as rigorously Catholic as possible. The previous schools had high Catholic identity. They have more women religious teaching in the school than any school in the archdiocese. They still face the challenges of any community where there is not enough Catholic practice in families. This year, 46% of the kids in the school are Hispanic and about 40% are Anglo. That mirrors the makeup of South Lawrence.

None of the curriculum is taught in Spanish. Their kids learn English with no problems if they start at nursery school even if they only speak Spanish at home. It’s much harder by the time they get to middle school and don’t have good language skills.

Fr. Paul said Catholic schools are not allowed to take the MCAS standardized tests because it would allow them to compare academic achievement directly with public schools. From an academic standpoint, 100% of middle school students graduate to high school. Many attend the very best private schools in the Merrimac Valley. For those who attend vocation schools, they get the best eduction to prepare them.

Fr. Paul says Lawrence public schools have the highest drop-out levels. It’s not a problem with the teachers and they have the best facilities funded by the state. But the public schools cannot battle with the inner-city gang culture. A Catholic school has a God-centered culture that embraces the whole family, and is based on God’s truth and not opinion. A public school teacher says it’s important for the kid to succeed in life, the kid will respond that it’s her opinion. In the Catholic school, they would be told it’s God’s opinion and He wants the very best of their life. The culture led by God leads to a successful academic experience.

Lawrence has 4-times the teen pregnancy rate of the state average. The Catholic school’s pregnancy rate has been zero. That’s a concrete example of the life choices the kids make day-by-day, and how they make very different choices.

Scot said listeners should experience Cor Unum and it will make them proud to be a Catholic in Massachusetts. He encouraged everyone to sign up to volunteer.

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