The Jesuit Praying Room

PLEASE, Include in Your Prayers: Fr. Joseph R. Lerch, S.J.
The following is the homily by Fr.Kennedy and the family tribute
read by Betty Viscaonage at Fr. Lerch's funeral.

Father Lerch's life is an excellent commentary on Matthew's Gospel - Matthew 25/31-40

While studying Theology in the Himalayas we called Joseph Robinson Lerch, "Golden Boy" because at recreation time if you needed a fifth for basketball or a fourth for bridge you could count on Joe. He was "a man for others" before Fr. General Aruppe made that slogan popular.

Joe was only 29 years old, when in 1950 he arrived in India to do his Regency. He was missioned to the jungle parish of Bandgaon to be Principal of their school. He taught in the national language, Hindi, though his tribal students spoke heir own language at home - Mandari. To learn another's language so as to appreciate their culture is to reach out in love. Joe learned enough of both Hindi and Mandari to love and be loved by his students.

Then came Theology at St. Mary's, Kurseong, 5,000 feet up in the Himalayas. Joe did so well they sent him to Rome for a doctorate.

While Joe was studying in Rome, Jamshedpur sent its first Indian vocation, Bonnie Mathias, to Theology at lnnisbruck. When Bonnie got as far as Genoa, he fell sick and was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. Bonnie knew no Italian and his doctor and nurses knew no English. Joe Lerch was sent from Rome to be his interpreter and companion during the long three months of Bonnie's dying.

"I was sick and you not only visited me, you stayed with me."

When Joe went back to the Himalayas as Professor of Theology and Minister of the house, war broke out between China and India. Chinese forces cut through India like a knife through butter. St. Mary's, Kurseong was directly in their path.

The Jesuit Provincial wired Joe to get all the Theologians down from the mountains to safety in Calcutta - on the plains, 400 miles away. While in the midst of doing that, the invading troops suddenly turned around and went back into China!!

A second crisis for the new Minister, Fr. Lerch, was the war between East and West Pakistan. Three million Bangladeshi refugees fled into camps in India. Joe sent his 150 Theologians in small teams, to help those displaced camp dwellers.

"I was a refugee and you helped me."

Father Lerch's quiet efficiency did not go unnoticed. He had been at St. Mary's Kurseong for 15 years when a Rector was needed for India's second Theologate, De Nobidi College, Puna. The choice of the joint Indian Provincials was Joseph Lerch.

This was a real departure. Up until this time the Rector of that Theologate, a Papal Atheneum and the largest Theologate in the world, was always from some small European country like Luxembourg or Belgium, not from a Superpower. It was a tribute not only to Fr. Lerch's scholarship, but also to his diplomacy, that he was picked to lead such a multi-cultured student body.

Hundreds of priests in India today remember Father Rector Lerch as their excellent Professor and their brotherly Guru.

After 7 years at Puna, it became politically correct for all major organizations to be an Indian, not by a foreigner. Joe Lerch returned to America.

What assignment should be given Jamshedpur's "Golden Boy"? He was made Director of Manresa Retreat House at Annapolis. Joe helped make Manresa spiritually attractive and popular once again.

After 7 years at Manresa and a short spell at Holy Trinity in Washington, Fr. Lerch was assigned as Parish Priest of St. Alphonsus, Woodstock. For ten more years Joe made the growing St. Alphonsus a model parish and a Mecca for fellow Jesuits. He was the perfect host whether you wanted to make a private retreat or just take a break for a few days.

"I was spiritually hungry. You took me in and fed me."

Time to move on. Fr. Lerch became Chaplain at St. Joseph's Hospital. He once told me that on an average he anointed 50 people a week for 4 years. But people will remember Joe for his kindness, his empathy, the comfort he gave the sick and their families.

Always available, always considerate, when my nun sister needed blood for a hip operation, Joe offered his. It was refused. There was something wrong with it. What was wrong with it was terminal colon cancer. Joe took that diagnosis with his usual spiritual serenity. When I visited film in the hospital he quoted Dag Hammarskjold.

"For all that has been, thank you Lord.
For all that will be, YES."

Even in Hospice Care at Gilchrist, he was our Golden Boy. No complaints. No vivid description of his pain, but a warm welcome and a listening ear.

Masters of the Spiritual life tell us that the way we approach and embrace death is the final signature we affix to the page of Salvation History assigned to us by God:

the language challenges of Bandgaon
the national crises at Kurseong
the multi-cultural tensions at Puna
the spiritual renewal at Manresa
the burgeoning parish at Woodstock

the critically ill patients at St. Joseph's Hospital
the colon cancer in Hospice Care at Gilchrist.

Joe signed his Salvation History story with the same courage and faith and hope in the Lord. Tonight we thank God for giving us Joe Lerch as our brother and friend and we ask Joe to continue to respond cheerfully to our never-ending needs.

If anyone is worthy of hearing Christ's words:

"Come you Blessed of my Father, possess the Kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world"

It is Joseph Robinson Lerch.

On behalf of my parents, Dick and Marie Lerch, my Aunt Priscilla, my sisters Marie and Ellen, and all the Lerch "boys" Chuck, Billy, Dan, Chris, John, Joe & the one lovely Lerch girl - Charlotte we thank you for being here today to celebrate the life of Uncle Joe. We are so grateful to his "Jamshedpur" family - Fr. McGauley, Fr. Kennedy, Fr. Hunt - thank you for your wonderful and comforting words, and especially to Uncle Joe's beloved former parish -- St. Alphonsus Rodriguez.

The presence and contributions of friends from St. Mary's Seminary - Fr. Leavitt, Fr. Eddy, both Mikes, Abdel, and so many others is much appreciated and have helped make this liturgy very special.

And, of course we are all extremely grateful to Fr. Mike French who oversaw every aspect of my uncle's care throughout the end of his life with such respect and thoughtfulness.

As a priest of over 47 years my uncle was a very tangible role model for me about sacrifice, simplicity, spirituality and acceptance - especially at the end of his life. He had a deep abiding love for the Lord, shown so clearly by his lifelong commitment to the Society of Jesus.

In a way - my uncle lived several lives-as a child he was the youngest of three Lerch Boys - Charlie, Dick & Joe - because of the closeness of their ages and size, Uncle Joe and my dad were often mistaken as twins - something that really annoyed my father, and just tickled my uncle - the younger brother! Growing up at 2515 St. Paul (or as they would later refer to it "The Shrine") - the two younger brothers would often be together and they loved seeing Saturday matinee movies - sometimes 2 in a row - those outings had a brief 60 year interruption, but again became a treasured activity for the last few years. Uncle Joe was not just my father's little brother - he was his best friend. When my uncle joined the Jesuits at the young age of 17, he moved into a different part of his life - one that we really learned more about today than we probably ever knew - a life in India - 30 years a missionary in a country around the other side of the world.

Thank you, Fr. Kennedy, for helping to fill in some of the details about his life and most significant contributions there. I don't know that any of us in the family had ever heard of the "golden boy" moniker before, but none of us are really surprised are we?

Yet even though he spent so many years so many miles away from Baltimore My uncle was a true constant in our lives - He was first present to us through the mail -We remember the Par Avion airmail letters - that would come occasionally from India with the names of exotic places that we could only imagine - Kurseong, Bombay, Poona. Although the great-nieces and nephews will find this impossible to believe - there was a time, before email, and cell phones, in which international communication was nearly impossible - except through letters. Those tissue thin letters would come in his distinctive handwriting telling us of a world so far away - and yet, even then he was interested in us, in what we were doing. Surely thinking that this connection would score BIG points with the school sisters in elementary school, I related often that my uncle was a missionary in India - just to be the relative of someone who was doing such important work might help with that math grade! Maybe it did!

Fast forward to Christmas 1969, on Meadowood Road - at the end of the day there was a surprise snow and Uncle Joe was thrilled! I think he had missed snow more than he missed any of us all those years in India. He and I went for a walk down the road after dinner and it remains one of my favorite Christmas memories - it was beautiful - it was quiet in the way only snow can make the world quiet, it was a wonderful.

When Uncle Joe came home for good in 1980 he jumped into the middle of the Lerch family - in a big way - he was here for everything - a few sad occasions, but many more happy ones --many family weddings, baptisms and first communions, baseball games in Salem, playing with his beloved Rusty, and a great surprise visit to Tybee with Fr. Hunt! He was present to all of us in 100 different ways - those personal memories will bring us all smiles for years to come.

Uncle Joe loved making connections for the family - I think he saw himself as a real thread between generations and even between continents. He orchestrated several important pilgrimages to Ireland -- his mother's ancestral home. On one trip with my parents he celebrated a wonderful mass in the Heaphy family church in Donerail, - with my father - Richard Heaphy Lerch giving a greeting on behalf of the Baltimore branch of the family. My father recalled in one of his poems that they had found "cousins by the dozens" in Ireland.

Uncle Joe had also spent a great deal of time tracing his father's roots back to Germany - something that his namesake - Joseph Robinson Lerch II has continued. Joe came to visit him several times recently with questions about Lerches of long ago - August, Emil, Henry --- Uncle Joe was so happy that Joe would keep this project that was dear to his heart, alive for the family.

The ultimate connection of "Uncle" and "Priest" was that my family and I had the unique blessing of having my uncle as our parish priest right here at St. Alphonsus for 10 years. My kids would say that everyone else called him Fr. Lerch, but they still got to call him Uncle Joe - just like their mother - trying to trade on the family connection!

Most of all we are thankful for the good times as a family - especially Thanksgiving. Uncle Joe said that he had missed way too many Thanksgivings in a country where it wasn't exactly an important holiday and so he took it upon himself to gather the entire Lerch clan for Thanksgiving once he returned to the States for good. We started the tradition when he was at Manresa on the Severn with a wonderful feast, beautiful walks along the river, and even a baptism or two thrown in for good measure. It was so fitting that Uncle Joe pulled everyone in to the celebration and single handily began a new tradition -we were together again right here at St. Alphonsus this past November.

Although we all knew that this Thanksgiving celebration would be his last it was still a wonderful feast with great laughs and reunions. John got us all together for a photo with Uncle Joe in the middle of the crew as always. Another memory to treasure.

In so many ways Uncle Joe drew us all closer together as a family. We are forever grateful - he was our golden boy too.


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This page is dated February 2004