'You always respected her'

Town remembers Cerra's extensive legacy

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They called her a tenacious fighter who had compassion and concern for everyone.

They called her the best friend anyone could ever have.

They called her a legend, a wonderful woman who would feed people in need and take them to a doctor and even deliver their prescriptions.

There are many words and stories about Mary Cerra, who passed away on Jan. 6, 2020, at age 93. Serra was the first female president of the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s League, and she served four years in the District 42 seat in the Rhode Island House of Representatives. She was also the first woman elected to represent District 1 on the Town Council.

Perhaps Mayor Joseph Polisena best described his mother’s “best friend” after her funeral mass inside St. Rocco’s Roman Catholic Church on Atwood Avenue.

“This is a sad day for the town of Johnston,” Polisena offered, his voice filled with sadness. “She was the matriarch of the Democratic Party; my mother was on her death bed and she said ‘You make sure you take care of Mary Cerra.”

After all, as Polisena went on: “Mary Cerra took care of everyone; no one – and I repeat, no one – ever had a bad word to say about her.”

Cerra, Polisena and dozens upon dozens of Johnstonians will attest, “had compassion and concern for everyone; whether people supported her or not, she would always help them. She came from a generation that whether you agreed with her of not, you always respected her.”

The Rev. Angelo N. Carusi, pastor of St. Rocco’s Church, offered: “Mary was devoted to and gave of herself to her family, her fiends and neighbors, her Catholic faith, St. Rocco’s Parish, and the town of Johnston and to all she accomplished in her long life. Mary was a woman who loved and enjoyed life and in turn was a great expression of love and support to so many people through her involvement here at St. Rocco’s and as a civil servant and elected official in Johnston.”

Carusi, who delivered a powerful homily during Cerra’s funeral mass, concluded: “Mary was able to accomplish so much through her compassion, generosity, advice and big heart; and all done with an infectious smile!”

Town Council President Robert V. Russo remembered meeting with Cerra when he began his career on the Town Council in 1995.

“[I] sat with Mary for several terms,” Russo said. “Mary packed a lot of punch for a small woman. She was a fierce advocate for her constituents as well as the town of Johnston. She did her homework, and stood down to no one.”

Russo, who attended Cerra’s funeral with other elected officials, went on: “Mary truly loved the town and was loyal and could be kind or ferocious depending on what side of the issue you were on. This generation and style of politician will surely be missed.”

Robert LaFazia, a veteran member of the Johnston School Committee who is now its chairman, quickly related: “Mary Cerra was an angel!”

LaFazia, who like many other Johnstonians has been deeply saddened with the passing of his friend and former School Committee Chair Janice D. Mele, went on: “Whew! We’ve lost two great women. Mary Cerra never said ‘no’ to anyone or any event. She did a lot for so many people, some we’ll never know who they were. She knew the political process, most especially how to pull out an election victory from those valuable absentee ballots. I loved Mary for always being there for me.”

People like Johnston Democratic Party Chairman Richard J. DelFino Jr. added, “Mary Cerra dedicated her life to public service. She was a champion for all marginalized segments of society. No bureaucracy or entity was too big for her to challenge. She was a loyal Democrat to the core and was a fierce advocate for working families.”

There was yet another side of Cerra that people like DelFino and his son, Richard J. Delfino III, witnessed first hand, simply because she worked tirelessly for the father-and-son tandem before, during and even after recent elections.

“Mary Cerra was a dedicated community leader who cared deeply for the people of Johnston,” said DelFino III, who benefited from her tireless works and won his first-ever run for the District 1 Town Council seat. “Even after her years in elected office she continued her energetic and active engagement in our town. During the terms I served on the council, Mary was active in helping with pasta dinners, talking to constituents and standing outside all day on Election Day to help our team. She will be missed.”

Likewise, Cerra was a staunch supporter of DelFino’s successor, Linda Folcarelli, who wanted it known: “Mary was a wonderful woman and a legend in Johnston. She was loved and respected by all in District 1, especially the seniors. She mentored me on how to win an election. She gave 100 percent of herself helping out on primary and Election Day. She was full of life, love and energy. She would call me and give me advice.”

Donna Folcarelli, Linda’s sister, offered, “Mary was very involved with helping veteran causes. She was a life member of the Kelley-Gazzerro VFW Post 2812 Auxiliary. She will forever be missed by me and her fellow members.”

Cerra and Mele are among three long-serving and highly respected elected officials who have recently passed away, leaving a huge void in Johnston. The list also includes one-time Town Council President Tom Ucci, whose son Stephen Ucci is a dedicated Johnston state representative.

“Mary was on the Town Council from 1987 to 2001 and served as vice president,” the younger Ucci remembered. “She was a state representative from 2001 to 2005 and had been active in the Johnston Democratic Party since the early 1960s. She also served as the town’s welfare director.”

It was 1990, as Ucci recalled, when a court challenge required an at-large campaign for Town Council. “Mary received the most votes in the Democratic primary,” he said.

Ucci also added: “Mary was a tireless advocate for the people of Johnston. She would feed those in need, take them to doctor appointments and deliver their medication. She had boundless energy and always helped those in need. Mary Cerra certainly made Johnston a better place.”

Frank Lombardo, a veteran Johnston state senator, offered: “Mary was a humanitarian, devoted to the welfare of all she served. She dedicated a lifetime spanning over 50 years in the political arena and was a throw back to the older politician who would go to your house or apartment to help you work through a problem rather than calling of sending you an email.”

He added: “She was always there to help anyone who needed help. If it was getting a pot hole fixed, dealing with the Central Landfill, even getting the elderly to doctor appointments, grocery stores and picking up their medication – she was Uber before Uber existed.”

Yet another side of Cerra, as Lombardo emphasized about the one-time hairdresser and salon owner, was that she “would pick up some of her customers who did not drive, take them to her salon and take them home when they were finished. Mary is someone I deeply admired and she will always have a special place in my heart!”

Deborah Fellela, who like Cerra is a long-serving Johnston state representative who takes pride in helping people of all ages, noted: “Mary was always very kind to me. She was very helpful and always offered her services, letting me know when I first got elected how important it is always to answer your constituents, even if you are tying to find the answer for them, as they come first.”

Fellela added: “She took the time to come to our fundraisers and the different events in our districts. She was the old-school politician that we need to have more of today.”

As the Espositos – Cliff and Ann – said upon Mary Cerra’s passing: “Mary was a very important part of our lives for many, many years. It was our pleasure to take her to all the political rallies and fundraisers she was involved in. It was also a fun n time taking her to the Manton Seniors Dinner Dances.”

Like the numerous groups and organizations she served, Mary was the independent senior citizens group’s secretary for even longer than veteran President Lorie DeVito has been at the helm.

“Mary loved the Manton Seniors and for years did so many wonderful things behind the scenes to make our organization go and grow,” DeVito related. “I agree with everything people are saying that Johnston – or any other place for that matter – will ever have such a caring compassionate person as Mary Cerra by their side.”

To which Cliff and Ann Esposito added: “Our greatest pleasure was taking Mary to her surprise dinner when Mayor Polisena presented her with a key to the town of Johnston. She was so surprised that she was recognized for her 50 years plus of public service. Mary couldn’t stop talking about it for the longest time.”

Polisena, along with JDTC Chairman Richard J. DelFino Jr. and Town Sergeant Stephen Mallane, held that special ceremony for a legendary lady – a wonderful woman who never asked anyone for anything – as Cliff and Ann Esposito went on: “She was a very kind and selfless person who always ready to help those who needed her help. We will never forget her; she will always be in our thoughts and prayers.”

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