The paved path for walkers and bicyclists that cuts through East Boston was once abandoned railroad tracks, a blight that many people shunned.
But Mary Ellen Welch, the beloved community activist who died last March at 77, saw potential in the desolate tracks to make East Boston better and pushed for their transformation into the greenway that now stretches from Piers Park to Constitution Beach.
On Saturday, the urban oasis was renamed the Mary Ellen Welch Greenway in honor of the woman who devoted herself to improving the neighborhood that was also her lifelong home.
“It’s a nice recognition for somebody who worked hard every day for her community,” said Welch’s niece, Carrie Welch-Palmer, who lives in Whately. “This was a spot that was truly an eyesore before, a dilapidated railway that she knew could be so much better and so much more beautiful and useful for the community.”
Welch fought for a better East Boston in every corner of the neighborhood.
On the blackboard of her second-grade classroom at the Hugh Roe O’Donnell Elementary School, she wrote the number of the Massachusetts Port Authority hotline for lodging complaints about airport noise.
On the first day of court-ordered busing in 1974 to desegregate Boston Public Schools, Welch stood outside Samuel Adams Elementary School, where she greeted children who were attending class from outside of the neighborhood, said Frederick P. Salvucci, a former state secretary of transportation.
At her family home on Webster Street, Welch wrote letters, and later in life, dialed into community meetings on speaker phone.
“She represented our best values,” said Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
The dedication ceremony, which featured Irish music and step dancers, could never have occurred while Welch was alive, her friends and family said. She had no use for personal accolades, they said, and insisted on not having a memorial service following her death.
“She’s looking down and saying, ‘What are you making such a big fuss for,’ ” said her brother, Jack, who lives in Canton. “That’s just the way she was.”
Salvucci looked skyward and explained the celebration to Welch, telling her the crowd was gathered to build momentum for long-discussed plans to put highway ramps to the Callahan and Sumner tunnels underground and extend the greenway in their place.
“Mary Ellen, this is a rally to organize support to keep going,” he said, drawing applause and laughs.
Her sister, Eleanor MacMullen, wore two rings that had belonged to Welch. One was a Claddagh and the other had a lapis gemstone. The lapis ring had belonged to Welch’s mother before her. It came from Emmanuel College, where Welch and her mother, Eleanor Stafford Welch, were both educated.
“People here just extolled all of her virtues and what she did, but she learned them too and she learned them from the people before her,” said MacMullen, who lives in Biddeford, Maine. “You have to make some noise. You can be good and you can follow rules, but sometimes you need to make the noise to get your point across.”
After the ceremony, guests munched on pita chips and baklava tucked into small blue and pink paper houses that bore two quotes from Welch: “It’s a bigger picture,” and “It’s all of us.” The pita chips and baklava were Welch’s favorite dishes from a Boston restaurant that is now closed, friends said.
The Friends of the East Boston Greenway, a community group that supports that park, displayed plans for a flower garden it plans to build in honor of Welch near the blue railway car on the grounds.
State Representative Adrian C. Madaro, who referred to Welch as “Auntie Mary,” delivered some good news about the park’s future. The state budget passed in July included $100,000 to pay for a study to examine the feasibility of extending the greenway from Constitution Beach to Belle Isle Marsh Reservation.
City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who represents East Boston, was the final speaker to address the crowd.
Welch and Edwards had spoken on the phone and exchanged letters, but never met in person.
Edwards read a letter she wrote to Welch after her death. In the letter, Edwards expressed regret that she never met Welch and reflected on what she learned from her.
“We all miss you, Mary, because we felt safe when you were here. We knew Mary was on it. That’s what it felt like. Mary’s on it. Mary’s there. Mary’s on the phone. She’s got this that means we’ve got this,” said Edwards, who never sent the letter. “But you reminded us all the strength and power of East Boston is not in one person. It’s in all of us. We are who we’ve been waiting for and that’s your legacy, Mary.”