The Rev. Jean Barry, a fierce advocate for the region’s homeless and hungry who helped change the way people think about poverty and was instrumental in transforming a small soup kitchen on Spruce Street into a comprehensive social services agency that tends to the needs of thousands each year, died Monday at her home in Charlestown. She was 75.
Barry, the longtime executive director of the WARM Center of Westerly, was also an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church who served at a number of Rhode Island churches during her ministry. She also served as chaplain at Kent County Memorial Hospital in Warwick and as a clergy volunteer for female prisoners at the state’s Adult Correctional Institute.
A married mother of two, Barry once said was was drawn to social service through her religious training.
The Rev. Sunil Chandy, the Episcopal rector at Christ Church Westerly, said Tuesday that the “ministry of the diaconate is to serve in God’s name.”
“She did this well,” said Chandy. “She was loved by many in our Diocese of Rhode Island.”
“She was a tireless advocate for the homeless and the needy of the region,” said Sen. Dennis L. Algiere, R-Westerly, who worked with Barry to secure funding for what is now called the Rev. Jean Barry Center for Social Services on Spruce Street, a $2.3 million center that includes six one-bedroom affordable-housing units for low-income residents with physical or mental disabilities and a state-of-the-art kitchen. “She was a compassionate person and did everything she could to help others ... whether they needed a place to eat or a place to sleep.”
Algiere said Barry helped people understand issues surrounding poverty and homelessness and the need for affordable housing.
“She was a visionary,” said the Rev. Joshua McClure, retired pastor of Pleasant Street Baptist Church who first met Barry when he arrived in Westerly back in 1981. “She saw things not as they were, but as how they could be.”
McClure, in his role of pastor, worked with Barry to establish the Westerly Area Rest Meals (WARM) Inc., which was incorporated on Dec.15, 1987, “to provide shelter and meals to the homeless throughout southern Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut.”
With Barry at the helm, the shelter and soup kitchen were open seven days a week from November to March and rotated locations from church to church.
It was a challenge, McClure said, to get people to accept and understand the need for a soup kitchen and homeless shelter in Westerly, but it was a challenge Barry embraced.
“Many people turned a blind eye to the homeless,” he said, recalling the opposition — from neighbors and the town — to the idea of creating a homeless shelter in Westerly. “They said ‘not in my backyard.’”
“But Jean always saw them ... she saw the homeless,” McClure added. “Someone else might have stopped ... but not Jean. She had a dream. A dream she said she would complete ... and she did.”
“She made a difference in everyone’s lives ... whether they knew it or not,” he said. “She was a wonderful, wonderful lady.”
“She was a fighter,” said Russell J. Partridge, the current executive director of the WARM Center who took over for Barry in 2012. “For all people, but especially for people experiencing homelessness and poverty.”
“She believed everyone deserved a home and a second chance,” said Partridge, “and she spent her career making sure they got it.”
Partridge said Barry “built up the WARM Center from a small nonprofit to what it is today, a comprehensive social service agency that serves more than 3,000 people per year.”
“She was a great lady,” he added. “She was one of the best people I have ever met.”
“The values that Jean instilled at WARM ... compassion, hope, dignity ... became tangible when you watched her innately give to everyone she came in contact with,” said Joy Cordio, who was hired by Barry in 2007 after volunteering at the center for a number of years. “She lived and breathed compassion, hope, and dignity ... the walls of WARM still represent Jean’s values.”
“She blessed me, her staff, and thousands of people that came to WARM for assistance,” Cordio added. “Everything she did and created was framed in ‘what is in the best interest’ of the people she served ... she was always reminding staff that we were there to serve.”
“I am grateful to have known her and to have learned from her,” Cordio said. “She will be sorely missed.”
The Rev. Dr. Joyce Duerr, pastor at Tabernacle Baptist Church and the treasurer of the Westerly-Pawcatuck Clergy Association who serves on the WARM board of directors, called Barry “a model.”
“Westerly is a different place because of Jean’s love and care for others,” Duerr said.
“Reverend Jean Barry will be remembered for tending to her flock at the WARM Center and making sure Rhode Islanders, in their greatest hour of need, not only found shelter and a meal, but also a true friend,” said Jack Reed, one of Rhode Island’s U.S. senators. “She gave many of our neighbors a real sense of hope and dignity, prioritizing the needs of others before tending to her own needs. She will be truly missed, but her legacy lives on through the WARM Center.”
“Jean was a great influence in Westerly,” said Christopher Duhamel, president of the Westerly Town Council. “She had true compassion and care for those in our community who needed temporary help. Her leadership and drive to raise funds and build the WARM Shelter and [to make it a] lasting organization for care was extraordinary. Jean will be missed.”
“Rev. Jean was perhaps the most compassionate person Westerly has ever known,” said Lisa Konicki, president of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce. “The results of her selfless work live on through the many lives she positively impacted.”
Despite her struggle with debilitating fibromyalgia, Barry continued to champion the needy, and to give hope and dignity to the homeless until her final days, Partridge said.
As soon as Barry’s death was announced on Facebook Monday night, tributes began pouring in from around the country.
Russell P. Morely wrote that Barry was a living example of “service before self.”
“I first met her when she encouraged me to volunteer at the WARM Center (then Shelter) right after I retired from the Navy,” Morely wrote. “One of my favorite memories with Jean (among many) was a Christmas Eve where she and I gave out the presents to each resident ... the gratitude they exuded was overwhelming. She helped me understand that the cliche, ‘it is far better to give than to receive’ is real and very powerful. She will be missed by so many. Prayers for her soul and her family. May she rest in peace.”
“Although I did not know her personally, I knew her to be a fierce fighter for social justice and one who exemplified Jesus’ commandments,” said Chandy, “to ‘love God with all one’s heart and soul … and to love others.’”