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Theresa Parks, Mission Hill housing advocate who stood up to Harvard, dies at 84

Theresa Parks was a founder of Roxbury Tenants of Harvard.Todd Gieg

When Theresa Parks and her family learned in the late 1960s that Harvard University planned to evict them from their Mission Hill home to make way for a vast new hospital complex, her answer was swift.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to move,’ " she recalled in a 1989 Globe interview.

She and her husband began holding meetings in their Francis Street home, and those gatherings led to the creation of Roxbury Tenants of Harvard — a civic group of residents who lived in properties the university had purchased to raze and leave room for the complex.

“People kept stopping me in the street, saying, ‘Are you wacked out? Harvard is the most powerful institution in the world. You can’t fight it,’” she recalled.


Mrs. Parks did just that as a leader of the movement that forced Harvard to help create more than 900 units of mixed-income housing as part of its hospital plan. She was 84 when she died June 9 in her Mission Hill home.

“She was the matriarch, and the go-to of this neighborhood,” her granddaughter Tess said in a eulogy a couple of weeks ago. “She was tenacious, witty, and filled to the brim with Irish charm. She was sharp, resilient, and kind.”

Mrs. Parks’s work was honored by organizations such as Action for Boston Community Development, but the true measure of her enduring influence can be seen in the admiration of those who met her, even after her heyday of fighting Harvard.

“She was very humble, but at the same time she was like Goliath’s big brother if you had her behind you — all 4-foot-10 of her,” said Dermot Doyne, a co-owner of Penguin Pizza in Brigham Circle, who became friends with Mrs. Parks about 20 years ago.

Generosity was a way of life for her, he said, and that carried through into later years when Mrs. Parks would spend “a Sunday afternoon chatting away” in Brigham Circle, befriending “really down-and-out people there,” Doyne said.


“If someone asked her for a buck, she’d give them five,” he added. “She was never going to be rich in life, but she was going to be happy.”

Mrs. Parks traced her lifelong love of helping others to a lesson she learned as a girl growing up in Mission Hill, when her mother worked at Boston City Hospital cleaning lab glassware.

“Once when Ma came home from work at Boston City Hospital, she asked me how I spent my day,” Mrs. Parks recalled several years ago for The Boston Memoir Project.

“Gladly, I shared that I’d helped a neighbor with small children by going to the store for her,” Mrs. Parks said. “Upon my return, she gave me a dime, which I proudly showed my mother. Ma immediately responded that I had to give it back. She explained that we helped people not for rewards but because we could. That was the end of that story and that dime, but it was mother’s attitude of helping that influenced me throughout my life.”

In an interview, Tess said that “my Nana’s attitude was very much, ‘It’s not for me, it’s for others.’ "

The older of two sisters, Theresa Casey was born in Jamaica Plain in 1936 and was 4 when her family moved to Mission Hill.


Her father, John Casey, was an Irish immigrant who worked for the New York Central Railroad.

Her mother, Margaret Culkin Casey, was born in Belmont, and was young when her family returned to County Galway in Ireland. She lived there until she was in her 20s and moved back to the United States, where she met and married John.

“I grew up in the Mission Hill Project in the 1940s when it consisted of brick buildings that were pleasant to look at and sturdily built, just like the people living there,” Mrs. Parks said for the Memoir Project.

“We were not well-off, but thought we were the richest people in the world,” she added. “Neighbors all knew each other and pitched in to help. When clothes were outgrown, they were sent to another family who could use them. If a neighbor asked you to go to the grocery store, you were happy to go. Money was never an issue; there wasn’t any, so not to worry.”

Theresa graduated from Mission Church High School and met Robert Parks at a party. They married in 1955.

“She told me about eloping to Vermont as a teenager to marry my grandfather,” Tess recalled in her eulogy.

The couple lived in California for a time, returning to Mission Hill after Mr. Parks got out of the Army.

“He had been raised with values similar to mine, and we tried to instill the same attitude in our family,” Mrs. Parks said for the Memoir Project.


Mr. Parks, who died in 2000, worked in property management and had served as executive director of Roxbury Tenants of Harvard.

Along with raising their four children, Mrs. Parks worked at a local dry cleaner, coordinated elder services at Mission Park, and even called bingo games.

“She would say, ‘Tessie, there’s never a dull moment in Mission Hill,’ " said her granddaughter, who lives in Portland, Maine. “She liked to create opportunities for people to connect.”

Her biggest project connecting people started in the late 1960s, when three Harvard students knocked on the door with the news that the university planned to build an expansive medical complex.

“I asked the students several questions but they didn’t know much more,” Mrs. Parks recalled. “I then said, ‘Well, I’m going to have to go out and organize.’ They asked, ‘Are you a community organizer?’ I answered, ‘No, but I’ll be whatever you want me to be.’ "

Within several years, she said, “we won a major battle and were allowed to plan and develop affordable housing on 13½ acres of Harvard-owned land on Huntington Avenue and the Riverway.”

That became the home of the mixed-income Mission Park housing community. The organizing work of Mrs. Parks and her husband was recognized by residents, who named the Robert and Theresa Parks Community Building after them.

“We’ve been so blessed,” she told the Globe in 1989.

A service has been held for Mrs. Parks, who in addition to her granddaughter leaves two sons, Robert of Mission Hill and John of York, Maine; a daughter, Vanessa of Shrewsbury; a sister, Anna Adams of Mission Hill; two other grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.


Though Mrs. Parks’s health declined and she used a wheelchair at the end, “one thing she never lost was her sense of love for the community,” said Doyne, who concluded his eulogy: “Mission Hill has lost an angel, a saint, and a best friend to so many.”

Even when she couldn’t get around as much, Mrs. Parks held court from her wheelchair, turning any place she paused into a de facto office for organizing.

“There is one thing I know about my grandmother with absolute certainty,” Tess said in her eulogy. “Nothing in this world would hold her back from fighting for this neighborhood.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.