By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – The menu was strictly comfort food for a Latino palate – arroz con gandules, pollo guisado con papas, pan and biscocho. That is rice with pigeon peas, stewed chicken with potatoes, bread and shortbread.

This was the luncheon served to more than 100 senior citizens at Norris Square Senior Community Center during a Dec. 10 visit by Auxiliary Bishop Joseph R. Cistone.

Actually it was a fairly typical crowd and a fairly typical luncheon at the Catholic Social Services-run center, which serves a 97 percent Hispanic population.

Norris Square not only serves lunch to 100 to 120 people on a daily basis, Monday through Friday, it also serves breakfast to about 80, according to Coordinator Bethzaida Butler Lopez. Seniors come to it from both its North Philadelphia neighborhood and from 14 other zip codes, usually by SEPTA or paratransit, she said.

The center, which traces back 30 years, provides a number of recreational and social service programs. Minimum age for membership is 60, but a number of the people who come are well into their 80s, according to Butler Lopez.

“This is how many people we serve on a day-to-day basis. It’s just a very lively place,” said archdiocesan Secretary for Catholic Human Services Joseph J. Sweeney.

The visit of Bishop Cistone, who greeted each of the seniors, had lunch with them and toured the facility, was very special, Sweeney said.

Although he was with the Office of the Vicar for Administration when the present facility was in the planning stages, this was his first visit to the finished center, Bishop Cistone noted.

“I’m here really just to meet the people and to bring them the love of the Archdiocese and the greetings of the Cardinal,” he said. “I’m here as well to thank the staff and show them the gratitude that we have for all of the wonderful work they do on behalf of the people.”

Norris Square Center is one of four senior community centers run by Catholic Social Services, according to Lorraine Knight, director of Administrative and Specialized Services for CSS. The others, all in Philadelphia, are St. Anne’s in St. Anne Parish; Star Harbor in St. Francis de Sales Parish, and St. Charles in St. Charles Borromeo Parish.

Although it is administered by CSS, the major part of the funding for Norris Square Senior Community Center is provided by the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging with further assistance through the Catholic Charities Appeal. It is the only one of the four senior centers run by CSS that does on-site cooking.

There is also an ecumenical aspect, memorialized through the adjoining Casa de Carmen Aponte, which is a joint venture of Catholic Social Services and the Norris Square Civic Association. It provides 32 units of housing, many of them occupied by seniors who visit the Center.

The late Carmen Aponte was a Baptist woman who started ministry to the elderly in a small neighborhood church more than three decades ago, according to Norris Square’s Program and Activities Director Wanda Rodriguez. When the needs outgrew the resources and space of the little church, she looked for other funding sources, and Catholic Social Services stepped up to fill the need.

In addition to food and fellowship, Norris Square provides such programs as computer classes, English as a Second Language (ESL), mental health programs and excursions.

“I’ve been coming for two years ever since I turned 60,” said Anna Carrero, who lives near the center. “It’s wonderful, they are good people and watch over you.”

Miguel Maramirez has been coming down to the Center from Hunting Park by SEPTA for the past decade. “It’s a second home,” he said.