St. Martin de Porres Senior Center reopens after fire damage

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Long-awaited sunshine left only a few melting mounds of snow outside St. Martin de Porres Senior Center in Alexandria, whose recent makeover gives it a bright, cheerful look to match the upcoming season.

"It feels airier, bigger and warmer now," said Kathryn Toohey, center director, prior to the grand reopening March 9. "Seniors are very happy to be back," she said. "This is their second home."

The reopening festivities, which included a blessing by Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Father Mark S. Mealey, entertainment by the Alexandria Harmonizers and Queen of Apostles School Children's Choir, and lunch, brought together nearly 100 seniors and center supporters.

St. Martin underwent renovations and repairs after lightning ignited a fire on the center's roof last fall.

"Along with repairing fire damage, we opted to do some additional improvements and to make it more appealing," said John Amarantides, facilities manager for the diocesan Office of Planning, Construction and Facilities.

A new roof was installed, the brown ceiling was painted white, florescent lights were swapped with LEDs and the blue-gray carpet was replaced with a floor that looks like concrete but has the spring of a sports court. "It has more give to minimize pain on joints," said Toohey.

Work on the center - operated by Catholic Charities in collaboration with the city of Alexandria - cost the diocese about $160,000, according to Amarantides.

Before Monday's blessing, Art Bennett, Catholic Charities president and chief executive officer, thanked those who helped make the renovations possible and kept center activities running, including Father Leopoldo M. Vives, a member of the Disciples of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary and pastor of Queen of Apostles Church in Alexandria. The parish hosted activities during St. Martin's nearly three-month closure.

Bennett said Pope Francis has spoken firmly about the need to care for seniors from a place of love.

"The elderly are not aliens, we are them, in a short or in a long while, ... although we choose not to think about it," the pope said March 4.

Bennett said he believes the pontiff would be proud of a place like St. Martin, where he said seniors' "dignity is upheld."

Such dignified care is verified in the love the seniors feel for the center.

"When you come here, even if people don't know you that well, they treat you like a friend they haven't seen in a long time," said senior Ann Daniels.

Batool Ganji, who lives alone, has been coming to St. Martin nearly every day for seven years.

"This is where I come for friends," she said. "It's my everything."

Scott can be reached at kscott@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @KScottACH.

St. Martin de Porres Senior Center is funded through the annual Bishop's Lenten Appeal.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015