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Lavinia Ruth Abel, 88, died peacefully May 3, 2023 at Elizabeth Seton Residence in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts. She is survived by her children, Andrew Abel of Mercersburg, PA and his wife Grace Abel; Catherine Abel of West Roxbury, MA and her husband David Brenner; her brother, William Briggs of Savannah, Georgia; her three grandsons, Nathan Abel, Rubin Brenner and Sam Brenner; niece and goddaughter Anne Burns; nephew John Briggs and other family members.


Lavinia, or “Vinny” as she was known to all who loved her, was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts on November 25, 1934. The daughter of Ruth Lawrence of New York and Stuart Briggs of Brookline, she was raised with two older brothers in nearby Fairhaven. Her father was an amateur ham radio operator who communicated with other radio operators in Europe during World War Two, inspiring her early interest in world events and human rights. In 1945, with the war ending and millions of Europeans experiencing displacement, 11-year-old Vinny founded a Foreign Friendship Club with five friends, collecting donations to send fifty boxes of clothing and shoes to refugees in England, Italy, and Sylt, a German island.


From her mother, a devoted member of the Episcopal Church and a director of religious education, she developed a strong faith and “a spiritual life that is so remarkable for me,” as she later described it. As an adult she was an active member of All Saints Parish in Brookline.


Vinny attended the Northfield School for Girls (now the Northfield Mount Herman School in Gill, Massachusetts) where she made lifelong friendships. She received her bachelor’s degree in social work from Boston University. Vinny met her future husband, Thomas Abel, when he was serving in the Navy and his boat docked in New Bedford. According to family lore, Tom and a group of sailors walked into the China Clipper in New Bedford where Vinny was waitressing and Tom ordered “a cup of coffee and a smile.” Vinny was charmed, and they soon fell in love and married in 1957. They moved to Dorchester when their daughter, Katy, was three. A son, Andy, was born in 1963.


In 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson launched his Great Society programs aimed at reducing poverty, Vinny taught in the first-year Head Start class at the Salvation Army Day Care Center in Dorchester. She later earned her master’s degree in early childhood education and taught future preschool teachers at MassBay Community College in Wellesley and the State University of New York College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill. In later years, she became an English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor, teaching classes and tutoring individual students who came to Boston from all over the world. Many students remained lifelong friends.


Vinny was deeply committed to social justice issues and in particular, the struggle for racial equity in the 1960s and 70’s. During the civil rights movement, she worked with other Dorchester mothers to raise funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to support voter registration drives in the South. She was one of more than 20,000 people who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during his 1965 visit to Boston to protest segregation in the public schools.


Vinny lived for many years in Newton, Massachusetts. She loved the community, working at the polls on election day, enjoying swims in Crystal Lake and dining out with family at many local restaurants. In addition to teaching, she loved to travel, exploring New England and also making trips to Taiwan and England when her children were studying abroad. She spent many happy hours with her grandsons, cooking with them and taking them to festivals, plays, and museums.  She loved learning about the world through the experience and cuisine of her ESL students, who were always invited to share Easter or Thanksgiving dinner with the family.


A funeral service will be held on Saturday, May 13 at 11 a.m. at All Saints Parish, 1773 Beacon St., Brookline, Massachusetts. In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to the All Saints Outreach Fund or the Elizabeth Seton Residence in Wellesley Hills.

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