On a warm, slightly breezy day that blew in the smell of dill from its thriving victory garden, Operating Base Cecilia held its grand opening and blessing nearly three years since beginning its service to military veterans out of the former St. Cecilia School on Lincoln Highway in downtown Coatesville.
The June 30 event drew Auxiliary Bishop John J. McIntyre, nearby St. Peter Parish’s pastor, Father Michael Fitzpatrick, officials from Catholic Social Services and other local dignitaries to celebrate the hard – and mostly volunteer – work that went into refurbishing the school building into a place that will serve former service men and women for years to come.
(See a photo gallery from the blessing and grand opening here.)
The name Operating Base Cecilia came from Army Lt. Col. (Ret.) Maura “Mo” Gillen, deputy executive director for the Veterans Multi-Service Center (VMC), which runs the facility.
It serves about 50-75 veterans and their families each month mostly in Chester County plus others in Montgomery and Delaware counties. In association with Catholic Social Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, VMC offers employment readiness, training and job placement on-site.
Perhaps its most important function, however, is to provide temporary housing for homeless veterans.
As Mark Beaugard, chairman of the Operating Base Cecilia Development Committee, said during his remarks at the blessing ceremony, OBC operates from “a housing-first model. Our clients are first placed in housing, and then other issues are dealt with, such as procuring benefits, health care, financial counseling, job training and other issues. Our staff takes care of this once clients are in other housing.”
Back in 2013, the program received a $1 million grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs to create coordinated outreach in the aforementioned counties.
It is expected the center will serve approximately 200 veterans annually, 60 percent of whom must be homeless and 40 percent in danger of losing their housing. To date over 550 veteran families have been served, 14 percent of which were headed by women.
Since beginning operations, much of the work has been dedicated to repurposing the St. Cecilia School building, which closed in 2006. That meant installing new bathrooms, upgrading the kitchen, making everything handicap accessible and creating living areas.
Speaker after speaker at the opening ceremony lauded the contractors who worked at or below the market rate and the efforts of volunteers who donated countless hours.
For instance, at the beginning of this year, Msgr. Greg Parlante, pastor of St. Cornelius Parish in Chadds Ford, challenged his parishioners by saying he wanted people to commit to 52 hours of service, one hour for each week of the year. More than 20 parishioners responded by going to Coatesville every week to serve meals, paint and remove rubbish, “all trying to reach their 52-hour commitment to Jesus,” as one participant put it.
Mo Gillen obtained a grant for refurbishing the kitchen. For her colossal efforts in this and other regards, she received an award from St. Peter Church’s Knights of Columbus Council 10351. The Connelly Foundation donated a substantial amount of funding, and Beaugard said that “without their grant, this (project) would not have been possible.”
Additionally the archdiocese’s Nutritional Development Services’s staff brought their skill and resources to building the food program.
Another significant partnership was the close and fruitful cooperation between local, state and federal government agencies with archdiocesan Catholic Charities and Catholic Social Services.
During his remarks, Beaugard spoke to why a project like this is so important.
In life, he said, we “all stumble and get picked up usually. Sometimes we stumble in our living situation and become homeless. That’s the reality. Hopefully our neighbors will also pick us up.
“But in this story, the homeless are veterans. They have served our country with bravery and with dignity. Our goal is to afford them stable housing,” Beaugard said.
Other speakers agreed with his assessment that “Coatesville has met upon hard times,” and he expressed the hope that OBC “will stabilize this portion of the community.”
Beaugard also explained that when OBC’s mission is described “to donors and volunteers, they respond,” he said. “No cajoling is necessary.”
Bishop McIntyre told the guests that the vision of OBC was aimed at “improving access and enhancing services for our beloved veterans and their families. God provided what we needed to fulfill that vision of being a place of welcome and general concern for our veterans.”
Growing up, the bishop said, “I always took for granted the service (veterans) offered to our country. And yet it’s something we should never, ever take for granted. For their willingness to serve in the manner which they did lies at the very heart of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, at the very heart of our faith.
“For the willingness to serve in the armed services is one of patriotism, and patriotism is born of our love of God, which is the virtue that lies at the heart of our faith in God,” Bishop McIntyre said.
The willingness of all Americans to help veterans and their families “really brings the circle back around because our service of them is a fruit of our love of neighbor, which is rooted in our own love of God,” the bishop said.