Rev. Joseph R. Lerch, 77, educator in India


The Rev. Joseph Robinson Lerch, a former educator who had taught seminarians in India and more recently was the chaplain at St. Joseph Medical Center, died of colon cancer Thursday at Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. He was 77.

"He generously and faithfully ministered to the spiritual needs of our patients, their families and to our staff. He truly loved his call to minister to the sick and broken," said Nancy A. Conner, spiritual care director at the Towson hospital.

Father Lerch was born and raised on St. Paul Street in Baltimore and graduated in 1944 from Loyola High School. He entered the Society of Jesus at Wernersville, Pa., that year and earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1950 from West Baden College in Indiana.

In 1950, Father Lerch sailed for India, where he spent the next 30 years as a teacher.

"He first taught in the jungle and learned both Hindi and Manduri in order to understand the culture. He was a prefect at a Roman Catholic school in Bangaon, and later taught English in Jameshedpur," said the Rev. Joseph M. Kennedy, a friend for 60 years and former director of the Jameshedpur Mission Bureau in Baltimore.

After completing theology studies at St. Mary's College in Kurseong, India, he was ordained a priest in 1956.

In 1960, he joined the faculty of St. Mary's College in the Himalayas as a professor of theology, and was later appointed rector of the college. He taught theology from 1979 to 1980 at St. Joseph's Seminary in Allahbad, India.

He was named director in 1980 of Manresa-on-Severn, the Jesuit retreat house near Annapolis that is now an assisted-living facility for the elderly.

He then served as pastor of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez Roman Catholic Church in Woodstock for a decade, until joining St. Joseph Medical Center as chaplain in 1999.

"He made Manresa spiritually attractive and popular again. And because Woodstock is an area of growth, he was able to make a small church into a model parish," Father Kennedy said. "He was a very even-tempered and a very thoughtful guy. Everyone loved Joe."

"He was magnificent. He touched the lives of not only our patients but our staff. He brought about healing, gentleness and love. He was jovial and always joking. He was our beloved Joe," Mrs. Conner said.

When Father Lerch received a diagnosis of cancer last fall, he refused to let the illness slow him down.

"When my sister needed a hip replacement, he offered his blood should she need it. And that's when the doctors discovered he had colon cancer," Father Kennedy said. "He was my best friend."

"He arranged his chemotherapy treatments so he'd be available to his patients because he wanted to still be able to give of himself," Mrs. Conner said.

The Rev. Frank H. McGauley, director of Xavier House of Prayer on East Madison Street, knew Father Lerch since both taught in India.

"We always called him Cool Whip because nothing ever seemed to bother him. Even when he was dying, he remained strong in faith," Father McGauley said. "He was able to let things go. He used to say, 'We're not here forever, you know.'"

"He was an engaging conversationalist who liked telling stories about his days in India. He was always going around quoting Hindi sayings that applied to a particular situation," said the Rev. Michael D. French, superior of the Jesuit Community in Roland Park, where Father Lerch was a resident.

A Mass of Christian burial was offered yesterday.

Father Lerch is survived by a brother, Richard H. Lerch of the Woodbrook section of Baltimore County, and several nieces and nephews.

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