At Norris Square Senior Community Center, you won’t find lonely senior retirees whiling away the hours idly in a rocking chair.

On any given weekday at the North Philadelphia center you will meet nearly 100 active, vibrant seniors visiting for a hot lunch, enjoying conversation, playing games, making crafts, dancing, participating in weekly Catholic Mass, and receiving various social services, all among friends and a caring staff of eight.

And it has been operating for 50 years, all under the auspices of Catholic Social Services (CSS) of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Catholic Housing and Community Services (CHCS) division.

One of four senior centers run by CHCS in Philadelphia, Norris Square serves on average 97 members Monday through Friday, most of which are Latino. They not only stay healthy because of good food served with love, but also because of the friendships and strong connections with other seniors.

Norris Square “gives them encouragement to age in a healthy way,” said the center’s manager, Wanda Mercado. “They volunteer here, establish friendships here. There’s a real sense of community, and that’s very important.”

Most of the seniors are of Puerto Rican heritage, and that territory’s towns all feature a square or placita where residents frequently gather to talk, dance, and play dominoes. Norris Square Senior Center has become a placita in North Philadelphia.

“When we get to a certain age, when we retire, those connections are very important and if we don’t have those placitas, we don’t get the connections,” Mercado said, adding that Norris Square “serves to keep our community together.”

To reinforce strong bonds of culture, Spanish is the primary language spoken at the center. But Norris Square’s staff is on hand to help Spanish speakers translate and understand important documents from English to Spanish.

For instance, social services coordinator Esperanza Lopez helps seniors access assistance programs from utility companies and state agencies, and with medical insurance statements and invoices.

She also works on the “cognitive and memory skills” of seniors “having trouble with memory and attention”, she said. To help prevent memory loss, she uses “visual memory exercises like matching games,” plus sounds of the natural environment and especially singing.

“The idea is to have fun,” she said.

The biggest draw for seniors is a hot lunch prepared by two cooks in the center’s small commercial kitchen, assisted by volunteers like center member Julia Ponce.

“I do volunteer work, dance and entertain, I serve coffee,” said Ponce, president of the center’s member advisory council. “If anybody needs me for anything, I’m available. I like to be active and involved, and I like to help people. I make people smile, and I am blessed.”

The food served reflects Puerto Rico’s rich cultural heritage, so the tasty dishes feature influences of African, Spanish and Taino (the main indigenous culture of the Caribbean islands) cultures.

Seniors gather each day for a hot lunch at the North Philadelphia site. (Matthew Gambino/CatholicPhilly)

That’s been the main characteristic of Norris Square right from its beginning 50 years ago when Carmen Aponte started feeding her Latino neighbors in the basement hall of a local Baptist church. The number soon grew to more than 200 at a sitting.

But they didn’t just sit and eat. Dance is also a strong part of Puerto Rican culture. The people loved to dance the cha cha, but that was frowned upon by the church’s leaders, Mercado explained, so they had to find a new home to serve the people.

By the early 1970s the federal government established and funded local Area Agencies on Aging to aid seniors in local communities. The Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, PCA, was born, and today it provides significant funding for many senior centers in the Philadelphia region, including Norris Square.

Catholic Social Services began its partnership with PCA to establish Norris Square Senior Center in 1973, and currently CSS provides some $600,000 in annual funding to the center for program support and facilities management, according to James Amato, secretary for Catholic Human Services of the archdiocese.

“We are proud of our 50-year mission commitment at Norris Square Senior Community Center,” Amato said. “This center is our highest utilized senior center, serving as a focal point in ensuring nutrition, socialization, and access to other necessary governmental services that are vital in maintaining seniors in their homes.”

The annual Catholic Charities Appeal is a major funding source for the church’s subsidy to Norris Square and its sister senior centers, plus numerous other outreach services across Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Today dance is still a major activity of seniors at the center. Their Grupo Alegria dance club, which participates in Philadelphia’s annual Puerto Rican Day Parade, gathers after lunch on Thursdays to have fun and keep moving – a vital component of good health for seniors.

They bring a zest for life that is unmistakable for any visitor to Norris Square.

“When you walk into the center, it is full of life!” said Heather Huot, director of CHCS. “From dancing to dominoes, there is just this constant feeling of energy that you get when you are there.”

She noted that the center served 14,000 meals last year and is “on track for that to be higher this year.”

All those meals and activities at the center serve one purpose, according to Huot.

“As people age, they struggle with feelings of isolation. Norris Square becomes their second home, where they feel they belong and have companionship,” she said.

“CHCS is committed to supporting seniors as they age in place, staying as vibrant members of their communities for as long as possible. Norris Square is a critical part of that mission and especially important to supporting our aging Latino brothers and sisters.”