Some 26 years after a group of Haitian volunteers and American parishioners teamed up to teach English to newcomers in the convent of St. Leo's parish, the Haitian Multi-Service Center (HMSC) is poised to enter a dramatic new phase of life, with a state-of-the-art, $9.5 million facility in the pipeline on what is now a desolate, abandoned lot in the heart of Dorchester. Catholic Charities, the center's parent agency, unveiled plans for its new Dorchester Community Service Center on Sept. 25 at a ceremony at 179 Columbia Road, where work is expected to begin by next year.
It was a bittersweet moment for the scores of Haitian men and women who attended the event, as the news also means that the Haitian center will be obliged to leave its longtime home on Bicknell Street, where the old St. Leo's chucrch once thrived. Catholic Charities now expects to convert the former church campus into an affrodable housing complex that could eventually provide shelter for as many as 60 needy families. Much of the misgivings about the relocation, however, are tempered by excitement about the prospects of a more spacious, modern building that will be more accessible to the larger Haitian community, according to HMSC leaders.
"The Haitian community is broader than just Mattapan," says State Rep. Marie St. Fleur, who identified the city-owned property as a potential new home for HMSC. "There's a large Haitian community in Roxbury and Dorchester. In my mind, its a good location because it will allow us to outreach to a broader constituency.
St. Fleur says that the Columbia Road site, nestled between three decker homes and featuring a bus stop right in front of the property, will be a perfect spot for the Greater Boston Haitian community. Joe Doolin, the outgoing president of Catholic Charities, agrees.
"It gets the Haitian center out of a residential neighborhood. When we started there it was a little ESL program in the old convent. What we're doing there is just too much for a small residential neighborhood," says Dr. Doolin.
"Plus it allows us to leave behind affordable housing. The gift of this land not only allows us to relocate to a better location but to re-develop the Saint Leo's campus and we think we can get 60 units of family housing and that's a lot in this neighborhood."
On hand for the dedication were a number of dignitaries, including Archbishop Sean Patrick O'Malley and Mayor Thomas M. Menino. The city of Boston awarded the property rights to Catholic Charities after a competitive proposal contest, in which the non-profit agency outbid the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation.
"This new community center will be a valuable resource for families in this Dorchester community," said Menino. "I look forward to the center's opening and seeing a beautiful new building and a vibrant addition to our community on this empty, unused land."
The Haitian Multi-Service Center will share space in the new facility with Catholic Charities Greater Boston's Uphams Corner Community Center, currently located at 35 Bird Street. The expanded space will provide more room for child care, family counseling and support services, youth services, elder care, perinatal and young parent services, AIDS counseling, vocational readiness, adult education and literacy services, and health education.
According to Catholic Charities board member Dr. Roger Jean-Charles, the agency expects to raise as much as $2 million to finance the project. The Yawkey Foundation has already pledged $5 million, with an additional $2.5 million coming from the Archdiocese of Boston.