It is with very sad hearts that we share the news that Unity House’s founder, Mary Jane Smith, passed away on January 15, 2017. All of us at Unity House, and so many members of our community, will forever miss her sunny disposition, her can-do attitude and her dedication to serving the disadvantaged among us.
The eldest of four sisters raised in Saratoga Springs, Mary Jane entered the convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph when she was just 18. After earning an education degree from The College of Saint Rose, she taught school in Albany, Binghamton and Syracuse before returning to the Capital Region to teach in Schenectady. In 1971, together with two Franciscan friars, Regis Obijiski and Peter Callaghan, she opened the doors of a dilapidated building on Eighth Street in Troy that was to serve as the base of their outreach to the community, an effort that eventually became Unity House.
Inspired by social activist Dorothy Day, she worked with people to cut through the red tape of the welfare system, prodded landlords to maintain housing for poor people and sought jobs for people with limited skills. From the start, Mary Jane had a fierce commitment to treating all individuals with respect and compassion so they have dignity and hope for changed lives. She and her co-founders were committed to the idea of living among the poor to better learn their needs.
After leaving her religious order in 1974 and marrying her soul mate, the Rev. John Lyons, a Presbyterian minister, Mary Jane continued to serve the poor in our community and shaped Unity House into the well-respected and valuable community organization it is today. She served as Unity House’s Executive Director for 20 years, developing programs for people living in poverty, adults living with mental illness, victims of domestic violence and children with development disabilities.
Even after her retirement from Unity House in 1991, Mary Jane continued to be a passionate advocate for social justice, serving on many boards that benefited not only the disadvantaged in the Capital Region but also the community at large and the mental health population of New York. State. She served on the board of the first AIDS Council of Albany and in board capacities for the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York and Hospice of Rensselaer County.
Unity House’s current CEO, Chris Burke, who worked alongside Mary Jane for many years, said, “Mary Jane proved years ago, and continued to prove right up until very recently, that there is always a way to assist those in need; we just have to look for the right way.”
During the past year, visitors to Unity House could often find Mary Jane in our dining room serving lunch to diners participating in our community meals program. She was a beloved volunteer, one who was cherished by staff and guests alike.
Mary Jane always had the vision to approach each challenge as an opportunity to improve the human condition at the individual level. In her, each person who crossed our threshold had an advocate. She listened, comforted, advised and gently challenged when those she spoke with had the ability to help themselves.
We are all fortunate for having known her.
Update: Arrangements for Mary Jane Smith have been announced.
Funeral service is on Monday, January 23rd at 1pm at the Provincial House of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet in Latham:
Address: 385 Watervliet-Shaker Road • Latham, NY 12110-4799