Remembering Mary Ellen Welch


By Chris Marchi

It is with hearts heavy with sorrow, but also also swollen with pride and gratitude that we remember Mary.  A constant in community environmentalism and airport activism for over 50 years, she was the founder, the leader, the mentor, and the friend that resident activists from all over East Boston have always needed throughout our very difficult journey with Massport.

At AIR, Inc., Mary practiced her unique brand of activism with kindness, diplomacy, logic, compassion, and many hundreds of trays of homemade brownies and cookies for over 35 years. For this, she won the adulation and respect of her neighbors, of our community’s political representatives, of local, state and national institutions, and even of her counterparts at Massport.

Taking stock of Mary Ellen Welch’s accomplishments beyond the personal impact she had on the lives of so many people is challenging due to the volume of her successes. It should be said also that Mary was the most humble person imaginable and that she would demand that others be credited. But without Mary Ellen, there would not have been a Maverick Street Mother’s protest which was the true beginning of Environmental Justice and marked the opening salvo and first victory in Boston’s residents’ famed transportation justice struggles with the Federal Highway Program. Without Mary, community activists would never have organized the prolonged, concerted effort needed to sign the Bird Island Flats Agreement, which marked the first time an airport created a public open space as environmental mitigation for airport impacts. Without Mary’s constant support, strategy and organizing, the First Community Agreement which gave the World the first airport soundproofing program, and gave East Boston the Edge Buffer Parks that became significant portions of the East Boston Greenway, and created the East Boston Foundation which has distributed over $5 million in funding to local groups which work to offset the negative environmental and health impacts of Logan Airport would not have been possible. Mary was a driving force behind the Logan Airport Health Study, which finally provided for the first time concrete evidence of the negative health impacts of Logan Airport.

More recently, Mary Ellen guided AIR, Inc. Health Initiative, which brought leading scientists from across the World to Boston, to an Airport Health Forum in 2016 to present the latest research on what exposure to airport noise and air pollution can do to human health. The educational videos produced at this event are a resource which can be used by people in East Boston, and across the United States. Mary was instrumental in creating Destination: East Boston, a documentary film which teaches the history of airport activism in East Boston to inspire more people to join in transportation policy and airport advocacy efforts.

While her patience, voice, laughter, passion and guidance will be missed, her work for the dignity of this community continues. The next steps toward a better, safer, fairer community happen on the second Wednesday of the month at the DeFronzo Center at 395 Maverick St., at 6:30 p.m. AIR, Inc. meetings are a place where all are welcomed and supported. Join your neighbors, as we develop, discuss, and think through the innovative ARISense Project which is creating the World’s first real-time networked air quality monitoring system to provide local residents with the information they need about current air pollution levels, and the exciting Breathe Easy Project, which will pilot the next wave of airport mitigation by installing air filtration devices in a local grade school.

Her notes

By Steve Holt

Many of us in East Boston received them from time to time, whether we’d grown up here or were recent transplants. MaryEllen didn’t care about longevity or neighborhood “cred”; she merely wanted to support and encourage those who were trying to improve their little corners of the block, neighborhood, city, world. So she took out her pen, or (more rarely) signed into her email, and wrote.

Sometimes the notes were dense with policy and history. Other times, they were of the encouraging, keep-on-keeping-on variety: like this note and check she sent me when I was training / fundraising to run the Boston Marathon for United South End Settlements in 2017. I remember and kept several notes and emails of encouragement from MaryEllen during our two-year fight to keep our neighborhood casino-free. These notes always cast current struggles in light of those she and others faced decades ago. But they were always so positive and full of neighborly love.

She’d always mention how much she wanted to be there with us, on the front lines of a visibility or front row of an educational event–like she was for basically every activist fight in Eastie over the last half century. But in these final, slightly less mobile years, MaryEllen contributed where she could, how she could, usually with a handwritten note. Eastie has lost a lioness. She will be missed.

Her legacy will be remembered

By Matt Cameron

Our neighbor Mary Ellen Welch was a lifetime champion of environmental, social, racial, economic, and immigrant justice–a true model of what a life of service in action looks like. Today we join many thousands of mourners throughout East Boston and beyond in grieving this loss and honoring a legacy which will be remembered for generations to come.

Mary Ellen was a fourth-generation East Bostonian who stood for racial equality, civil rights, and equal justice under the law for all at a time when these opinions were far more controversial than we can ever imagine today. She worked tirelessly for her entire life to hold Massport accountable for Logan’s responsibilities to our community (her family, as she liked to say, lived in East Boston “before the invention of the airplane”) at a time when they were at the height of their power. She served on the board of the Jeffries Point Neighborhood Association at a time when housing injustice was coming into focus as the single greatest threat to the integrity and diversity of East Boston. And she continued up to her final days to give her blessing and full support to progressive candidates (most especially our inimitable city councilor Lydia Edwards) and causes, even at a time when she was no longer able to comfortably leave her Webster Street home.

Stories are pouring out now from around East Boston from so many of us who received thoughtful letters, cards, emails, and calls of support from Mary Ellen over the years. In one particularly touching recent note to me, she shared her thoughts on the importance of Eastie’s immigrant history and the diversity which has always made our community so unique while expressing her support for refugees and undocumented families. I was touched as always by the elegance and moral clarity of her words, and the genuine humanity which came through in everything she did.

The Golden Stairs Immigration Center is in a very real way a product of Mary Ellen’s work. Her activism and community spirit directly inspired and drove the causes which got us involved in community organizing in East Boston, and she daily provided an outstanding example of how much good one committed individual can do.

In a characteristically modest final request, Mary Ellen asked that no memorial or funeral service be held for her. But of course a life like this one could never be forgotten by anyone she touched, even in the smallest ways, and her memory will live on in our community’s parks, schools, neighborhood groups, and so many other places.

It is now on all of so many of us who were inspired by her life and activism to lift up her name and memory in the spirit of justice, humility, and unshakable commitment to community service which defined a life so honorably lived.

Remembering Mary Ellen Welch

By Phil Giffee

It is with pronounced grief we have to convey these words, which are almost impossible to write, let alone say aloud: Mary Ellen Welch, NOAH’s soul and backbone, former President of 18 years, and the North Star for justice, fairness, equity and compassion in East Boston for 50 plus years, has passed away (March 7) after a series of challenging health issues. We last heard her firm and directed voice at NOAH’s Board meeting just over a week ago. We were so glad that she could participate by calling in again in January and February after a too-long absence. One would never know, nor would she ever inform or lament, that her body was so confined she could barely move. But none of those limitations came over in her still vibrant voice.

We express our deepest sympathies to her treasured sister and brother, Eleanor and Jack, to her cherished nephews, to the Marchi, Cave, Madaro and Lynds’ families, who loved her more than one can imagine and whose hearts are broken, we know. And we know she loved you back with a loyalty, devotion and fidelity only a ‘mother’ could communicate.

For those of us who were fortunate enough to know Mary Ellen (or try to know her), or be involved in community causes of one kind or another alongside her, to have been touched by her immense strength, vision, passion for justice and equality, her courage, relentlessness and her twinning of wisdom and compassion, we will miss her beyond measure. She led the way, but she had our back. She was as stubborn as they come, but justice and equitable solutions can demand an intensity that is hard for most of us to hold. Most of us can’t come close to her reach, but we do try, we do. We have to. She taught us to try. She encouraged us. She defended us. She pushed us. But she also allowed us to lead and I am personally grateful and deeply indebted to her far more than I can too poorly convey here.

East Boston has grown personalities scattered across the spectrum who have been touched and affected, nee ‘handled’ and ‘stroked’ by her. People know she did! She was a Master. Everyone called her. You had to, but you wanted to! She was our conscience. She knew it, you knew it. But consciences do not act. People take action. And she wanted action, solutions, equity for East Boston, Justice for people. And she wrote to everyone – Governors, Mayors, officials, friends, foes, allies, ministers, mothers, fathers, kids, probably Popes and Presidents as well. No one too big, no soul too little. She pushed her points and encouraged her opinions/objectives tickling our egos almost embarrassingly so sometimes, but she did it not for personal gain or attachment, but to encourage a path or solution or a cause in which she believed.

As previously stated, Mary believed in more than causes, she fiercely and lovingly believed in people, which is why there is, and will continue to be, so much grieving over her departing. She would have none of this of course. No fussing over Mary would be tolerated or accepted by her at any time! We can hear her now saying, “Hey, stop this blabbing. Get back to work. Do something useful.” “But Mary,” we will say, “It’s our turn now. Listen up!. It’s good for us. We have to do this or we’ll bust!” She’d silently scowl, raise her regal chin, look us in the eye, let the silence drag painfully on and then say something like, “Ok, two minutes.”

So….Ok everyone! Cry it out, maybe hug somebody…Your two minutes are up. Get back to work. Get back to the struggle. Get back to the living.

“Is that ok, Mary?”

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