PAWTUCKET — When Sister Gertrude of the Little Sisters of the Poor first suggested the idea of using a St. Patrick's Day dinner as a fundraiser for the Jeanne Jugan Residence, her mother superior was skeptical. The head nun didn't think enough people would want to eat a “boiled dinner” of corned beef and cabbage and told Sister Gertrude she'd be lucky to make $5,000.
That conversation took place five years ago. Last year, the annual St. Patrick's Day event netted the Pawtucket nursing home run by the religious order a whopping $45,000. What's more, with its Celtic music, step dancers and generous raffle, it has quickly grown to be a traditional, not-to-be-missed social event for Irish and non-Irish alike. “It's sky-rocketed,” notes Sister Gertrude. “They do eat corned beef and cabbage. They love it!”
The event wouldn't be possible however, without the generosity of Greg Esmay, the owner of the Old Grist Mill Tavern in Seekonk, Mass. and The Wharf Tavern in Warren, RI. Due to 2012's devastating fire which destroyed the landmark Old Grist Mill Tavern, the Little Sisters of the Poor's St. Patrick's Day dinner will be moved to The Wharf Tavern this year. The event will be held on Thursday, March 14 from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the waterfront dining facility located at 215 Water St. in Warren.
Tickets cost $15 for adults and $7.50 for children under 12. Tickets can be purchased on-line at the website: www.littlesistersofthepoorpawtucket.org  or at the Jeanne Jugan Residence, 964 Main St., Pawtucket. Organizers ask that people purchase the tickets but make their own reservations with The Wharf Tavern. Tickets will also be sold at the door.
Sister Gertrude is quick to praise Esmay, who turns over his entire restaurant operation, plus staff, to the fundraiser and takes no cut of the proceeds. “He's just such a wonderful person,” the nun says. Plus, despite the bad year he had with the damage to the Old Grist Mill Tavern, he has come through again with his offer of The Wharf Tavern to hold the St. Patrick's day event.
As the self-proclaimed “lead beggar” of the Little Sisters, Sister Gertrude utilizes her vast people skills to marshal other donations related to the event. There are numerous businesses and individuals who help out with food, services or volunteerism. Among the largest are the Colorado Premium company, of Greeley, Colorado, which donates 750 pounds of prime corned beef each year, Tourtellot and Company, which provides produce, Scialo's Bakery, which gives bread and pastries, and the Nasiff Fruit Company, which offers salad and ingredients for the split pea soup that accompanies the meal.
Sister Gertrude said that in the current economy, the money generated by the dinner is needed more than ever to help operate the Jeanne Jugan Residence. As just one example, she noted that a Cranston company used to provide weekly donations of produce to make salads for the residents until the owner died and the company closed. “You wouldn't believe the cost of lettuce!” Sister Gertrude exclaimed, after having to price out salad fixings. However, she also said, “We pray to St. Joseph and he never fails us.” Sure enough, Steve Nasiff of Nasiff Fruit stepped in to fill the produce needs.
As to Greg Esmay, he said the connection with the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Jeanne Jugan Residence stems from his grandparents, who long supported the nursing home on Main Street. When the elderly couple later moved in with Esmay and his wife, he began noticing the checks made out to the Little Sisters. After their death, he decided to continue providing support to the religious order and its facility as a way to honor them. He said he figured that lending the use of the Old Grist Mill Tavern and some staff would be the same as writing a check. He, too, has been happily surprised by how much the event has blossomed.
Esmay also firmly supports the cause, noting the excellent care that the residents at Jeanne Jugan receive through the Little Sisters order. “The nuns are so great with the old people. If anyone went there to see firsthand what they do, they would be impressed. It makes you feel real good.”
For Esmay, it's been quite a year, as he is in the midst of rebuilding the Old Grist Mill Tavern. A trailer truck smashed into the popular eatery on June 24, 2012, rupturing a gas line and setting the historic building ablaze. He had originally hoped to have the new Old Grist Mill in place by now so the St.
Patrick's Day event could be held there, but delays with the permitting process have stalled progress.
Yet, Esmay said that despite how the site may look to passers by, work has taken place. All of the foundation is installed and ready for new walls to be erected. The architectural and engineering work is complete and he is just waiting for final approvals from the state.
Esmay said the largest obstacle has been getting permit approval from the Massachusetts Highway Department due to the site's close proximity to the roadway at Arcade Avenue and Fall River Avenue. The busy intersection, under jurisdiction of the state, is slated for a redesign next year and MassHighway officials have been working closely with Esmay to make sure that his design plans don't interfere with the road project.
In an effort to preserve as much of the original restaurant as possible, several architectural pieces, such as the grain tower, stone entry and large chimney have been carefully dismantled and placed in storage until they are rebuilt as part of the new construction. However, some things have to be changed to meet current building codes. For example, the original stone entrance was 6-foot, 2-inches high and now needs to be 6-foot, 8-inches, so a stone mason will be rebuilding this using the original stones. He is also trying to retain the former building's multi-peaked roofs, even though today's roofs are more sharply angled.
“We could have built another type of building--a more simple building--and the rebuild would have gone faster. But we feel an obligation to put the Grist Mill back as the Grist Mill,” said Esmay, who owns the operation with his wife. “A lot of the redesign will preserve as much of the look and feel of the original Grist Mill as possible in meeting current code.”
A natural optimist, Esmay said the clean-up work that followed the fire led to the discovery of some old mill workings that were buried in the basement. “Some of the stuff is fascinating,” he said. He has some experts from Old Sturbridge Village coming to evaluate the pieces and hopes to be able to keep them on display when the new restaurant opens.
Esmay said that if all goes according to plan, the rebuilt Old Grist Mill Tavern will be completed in about three and a half months.
In the meantime, Esmay said he looks forward to hosting another St. Patrick's Day dinner for the Little Sisters and the Jeanne Jugan Residence. While it's a different venue, The Wharf Tavern is larger than the Old Grist Mill and has a banquet room that can accommodate more patrons. “It's just a great day, and my staff loves doing it too,” he said.