Bill Greene/Globe Staff/File
Some nights Gina Scalcione would lay out her blankets in the Saints Room just inside the entrance of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The East Boston church had offered her spiritual sustenance since she came to America from Italy as a teenager, and for a few years she slept there to protect it from being closed for good.
“It is not the easiest thing to do in the world, to sleep in the church,” she said in 2007, three years into leading efforts to prevent the Boston Archdiocese from shuttering the building during a round of church closings. “It’s a struggle. That’s why you call it a vigil. You adjust to make it last.”
For decades, Mrs. Scalcione was on the front lines of community activism in East Boston, successfully leading efforts to change the location of the third harbor tunnel and delaying for years the closing and sale of her church.
Mrs. Scalcione was 77 when she died in hospice care Wednesday from complications of an infection and the flu. She had lived for more than six decades in the East Boston home her immigrant parents bought when they brought the family here from Italy.
“Gina was an activist at a time when East Boston was under siege constantly. She was the best,” said Michael S. Dukakis, who was governor during several of the years when Mrs. Scalcione was taking on government officials at every level. “She just was out there all the time and was wonderful.”
At a time when then-Governor Edward King’s administration proposed having a new tunnel emerge in a place that would cut off and isolate part of East Boston, Mrs. Scalcione persuaded numerous politicians to oppose the plan.
“Gina was quite a lady,” said Raymond L. Flynn, who named her to a transportation task force when he was mayor-elect in 1983. “She was a real fighter and a champion for the community.”
Whether taking on Beacon Hill or City Hall, US senators or representatives, “Gina was always able to look them in the eye and confront them with not just emotional testimony and arguments, but well-researched positions,” said Mary Ellen Welch, a longtime East Boston activist.
“Gina was politically very, very effective,” said Frederick P. Salvucci, who was state secretary of transportation under Dukakis. “She was a very significant person in the physical geography of East Boston.”
That effectiveness came from considerable hard work and a decades-long knowledge of the community.
“She knew everyone in the neighborhood, so she took a very personal approach to persuading people, and she was very persuasive,” said Laura J. Brown, who formerly was editor of the East Boston Community News and is now deputy assistant administrator for public affairs at the Federal Aviation Administration.
“She rallied people and spoke her mind. And she did her homework,” Brown recalled. “When she went into a meeting, she knew what she was talking about. She also knew how the neighborhood felt because she went around and talked with people. She knew the pulse of the neighborhood.”
Mrs. Scalcione’s success was all the more remarkable because she hadn’t even heard of East Boston while growing up in Mirabella Eclano, Italy.
She was born Luigina LaVita and was the third of five children. Her parents were Elmerindo LaVita, who had been a lumberjack and helped manage land he farmed, and Maria Minuccia Imbriano, a stitcher. Mrs. Scalcione’s father named her after her grandfather Luigi.
The LaVitas moved to the United States in the mid-1950s and settled in East Boston.
“Gina was the first in her family who said, ‘I want to learn English. I want to be an American,’ ” said her husband, Jack. She became a citizen as soon as she could and registered to vote, choosing to be an independent, rather than align with a major party.
She began working in a garment factory on Washington Street in Boston that was run by a cousin of her future husband. One day, John F. Scalcione was visiting his cousin’s factory, bidding farewell to friends before serving in the military, when she caught his eye.
“She always wore heels. For some reason she never wore sneakers,” he recalled. “She walked by and I said, ‘Who’s that?’ ” After he returned to Boston, they married in 1964.
Over the years, Mrs. Scalcione was a founder of the Gove Street Citizens Association and the Coalition Against a Third Tunnel, which was known as CATT. Along with her activism, she had worked at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center in the elder services program.
“She was fierce in everything about her: In her likes and dislikes, her food, her wine,” said her daughter Tia of Wellfleet. “She was passionate about everything.”
Tia added that her mother had helped restart the Gove Street organization again a couple of years ago so the neighborhood could confront the challenges of new construction and developments in East Boston. “They felt that the city was not thinking, again, about the impact on the community,” Tia said. “So she started the group again at 75.”
While raising four children, Mrs. Scalcione also was known for her cooking, and for sauces she prepared from ingredients she grew. “Some call them gold. Some people just call them tomatoes,” she told the Globe on a humid August day in 2002 as her East Boston home overflowed with the aroma of cooked tomatoes that would soon fill Mason jars.
As part of her preparations, she washed each tomato by hand. “Every single one of them,” she said. Mrs. Scalcione and her husband scheduled summer vacations to accommodate the tomato season. “No matter how you arrange it,” she said, “you make adjustments every year.”
In addition to her husband, Jack, and her daughter Tia, Mrs. Scalcione leaves two other daughters, Lisa Dreitlein of Newton and Tonia Tassinari of East Boston; a son, John II of Greenville, S.C.; two sisters, Angiolina Pizzicannella of East Boston and Giuseppina Cimildoro of Milton; a brother, Michele LaVita of Derry, N.H.; and six grandchildren.
A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Monday in Vertuccio & Smith Funeral Home in Revere.
Mrs. Scalcione’s opposition to “any kind of unfairness was supreme, her husband said. She believed that “if something is unfair, you go after it, you fix it. You go after the people who are making things unfair.”
That was the case when, while trying to save the church that was a short walk from their front door, she went after the Boston Archdiocese and Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley. “I told him we are suffering, and we will keep on going, suffering,” she said in a 2004 interview, recounting a meeting she had with O’Malley. She added: “It’s not a vigil. It’s actually a suffering by sleeping on the floor, by crying, by saying the prayers, by trying to maintain a church.”
She was equally willing to shoulder burdens when taking on the city, state, and federal governments to protect her neighborhood, and she earned respect along the way.
“Gina was great,” Dukakis said. “She and her husband, Jack — these are the folks who make the system work, honest to God.”
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