A beloved kitchen manager at an archdiocesan senior center recently traded her apron for retirement — but not before her colleagues and clients threw her a sweet send-off party.

Carmen Aviles of the Norris Square Senior Community Center wrapped up her career with a June 4 staff luncheon featuring the home-cooked Latino cuisine that was a signature of her nine-year tenure there. The Kensington-based center is one of five operated by archdiocesan Catholic Housing and Community Services (CHCS) as part of its continuum of care to older adults throughout the five-county area.

Due to pandemic restrictions, Norris Square clients weren’t able to take a seat at the table, so they brought the party to the street, gathering in the park the center faces. After lunch, colleagues used a ruse to direct Aviles outside, where she was greeted by some 50 center regulars with flowers, streamers and gifts as a salsa band performed.

The lavish display was a fitting tribute to someone who “has meant everything” to Norris Square’s older adults, said center director Bethzaida Butler.

“Carmen shows love to the seniors,” said Butler, describing Aviles — her “right hand” — as a diligent and savvy food professional who blended knowledge, dedication and a love for the Latino culinary heritage she shared with those she served.

“When she came here, she took her time and did her research,” said Butler. “Nutritional value was the most important thing for her, and she found it in the arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), tostones (fried plantains) and viandas con bacalao (root vegetables with codfish). And she cooked it.”

Karen Becker, CHCS’s director of senior centers and in-home support programs, noted that Aviles never let a Christmas go by without preparing a Puerto Rican holiday favorite: pasteles, a time- and labor-intensive mix of seasoned meat and root vegetable paste, wrapped in banana leaves and parchment.

Bethzaida Butler (left), director of the archdiocesan Norris Square Senior Community Center, described retiring kitchen manager Carmen Aviles (right) as her “right hand.” (Gina Christian)

And, by her own admission, Aviles was firm on making sure seniors didn’t pour cold milk into their coffee, which she upgraded to longtime Latin American favorite Café Bustelo.

“I steamed their milk and whipped it,” she admitted. “They loved that; it made them happy, and it made me happy that I made a difference.”

Thanks to Aviles, “nobody left the center without eating a meal,” said Butler. “If they didn’t like (the menu selection), she would make something else.”

Over the past nine years, Aviles and her team prepared “at least 220,000 lunches and approximately 100,000 breakfast meals,” said Becker.

Due to COVID, the center has had to switch to a grab-and-go format, but still manages to provide more than 1,000 meals to its clients every week.

Aviles’ food has “filled the hearts” of Norris Square clients, said Becker.

And Aviles – who will now join her mother, daughters and extended family in California – agreed, noting that her time in the kitchen has been a ministry of her deeply held Catholic faith.

“When you believe in what you’re doing, you’re also following the words of Christ,” she said. “Faith and work – that’s what it is.”