Joseph G. Chamberlin, former Catholic Relief Services manager, mediator and Baltimore writer

Joseph G. Chamberlin, a Catholic Relief Services manager, mediator, Baltimore writer and raconteur, died Saturday of cancer at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson.

The Hamilton resident was 71.


“Joe was a very special person. The first time we met, we had sent Joe to Asia to conduct seminars on leadership management and we found him very engaging,” said Kenneth F. Hackett, former president of Catholic Relief Services and one-time U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, who lives in Fernandina Beach, Fla.

“He was smart, fun and a pleasure to work with, whether in the office or on the golf course,” Mr. Hackett said. “He had a good sense of humor and the ability to put himself in your shoes.”


“Joe had an absolutely amazing mind and was one of the brightest guys who worked through Archdiocese of Baltimore issues with his great knowledge,” said the Rev. Michael J. Roach, pastor of St. Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church in Manchester and a longtime friend. “His arbitration skills were always a call for reconciliation.”

Gifted with a quick wit, Mr. Chamberlin, who favored hand-tied bow ties, bumpy tweed hats and a Steelers’ sweatshirt whenever his favorite football team was playing, made friends easily.

“Joe was the ultimate friend. For everyone, without exception. No one was more optimistic, upbeat and faithful,” said Jeffrey B. Ayers, an attorney and Lutherville resident. “To quote Simon Wiesenthal, he ‘was ever ready to share his wealth of wisdom and piety with us and give us strength.’ ”

“Joe always had a great panoply of friends,” Father Roach said.

“Joseph Chamberlin was conceived in Cumberland, Maryland, by … a Roman Catholic priest and his married mistress and born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 25, 1946,” Mr. Chamberlin wrote in an author’s note for his book “Life In The Breach and Other Poems.”

For the first few years of their lives, Mr. Chamberlin and his brother, Thomas M. “Mick” Chamberlin, who also was born to the priest and his mistress, were cared for by Catholic Charities until being adopted by Mike Chamberlin, a shipyard security guard, and Ida Chamberlin, a homemaker, who raised them in their home in McKees Rocks, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh.

Mr. Chamberlin chronicled his search for his birth father in his first book, “Our Father Frank: The Story of a Priest, the Woman He Loved and the Sons They Left Behind.”

“Joe’s book is a powerful statement. It is a classic and a very important contribution,” Father Roach said.


Mr. Chamberlin attended Catholic school, and after the eighth grade entered a seminary to prepare for the priesthood. That came to an end after officials discovered he was conducting a correspondence with a girlfriend he had known since grade school.

Mr. Chamberlin returned to McKees Rocks, where he graduated from St. Francis de Sales High School.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1968 from the College of Steubenville, now Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, where he was a member of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity.

He moved to Joppatowne in Harford County, where he taught English at Havre de Grace High School for five years, and then left to join the faculty of Harbor City Learning Center on West Saratoga Street, an alternative high school for dropouts.

While finishing his master’s degree in psychology from what is now Loyola University Maryland in the early 1970s, he joined the anti-war movement. After being arrested during a demonstration and spending time in a Washington jail, he decided he wanted to pursue a career in mediation, he said.

He then took a job with Catholic Charities, and from 1978 to 1987 he was a field coordinator for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He joined Catholic Relief Services in 1989, where he worked as a field manager in Third World countries and in Europe.


“I knew Joe when I was at CRS headquarters in the late 1990s. He was very popular and well liked,” said Michael R. Wiest, who was the organization’s chief operating officer until retiring in 2011.

“He ran our training sessions for our international and national staff,” he said. “Joe remembered his time at CRS as one of the high points of his life. He loved helping people around the world, and he loved the international environment.”

Michael McDonald, who worked from 1978 until 1997 as a country director for CRS, later returned to the group’s headquarters in Baltimore as director of policy and planning.

“Joe was always very happy and gregarious. He was a good staff trainer and in organizational development, and was dedicated to making CRS a more professional organization,” said Mr. McDonald, a Rodgers Forge resident. “He brought humor into everything he did.”

After leaving CRS in 1996, Mr. Chamberlin worked in human resources at Johns Hopkins Hospital until he established Praxis Mediation which specialized in conflict management and organizational development.

“He had a gift and a talent for facilitating work,” said the Rev. Joseph L. Muth Jr., pastor of St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church in Northeast Baltimore. “He always looked at the positive side.”


He was on the roster of the Maryland Human Relations Commission, the District and Circuit courts of Maryland and mediated for the North Baltimore Center at Sheppard Pratt. He was also on the staff of the Sheppard Pratt Community Outreach Program and Hopkins Hospital.

He was an avid reader, and for decades he wrote daily entries in his journal.

He was seldom without a small pocket notebook in which he wrote while carrying on conversations with a collection of artists, writers, reporters, politicians, coaches whom he met almost daily at Ryan’s Daughter or Grand Cru in Belvedere Square.

He also wrote short stories, some of which were included in a collection titled “A Doctor Dies and Other Stories,” as well as poetry and haikus.

He was motivated and influenced, he often said, by the poet-monk Thomas Merton, who had written, “Poetry is the flowering of ordinary possibilities.”

At. his death, Mr. Chamberlin had completed a memoir and “Bridges: Selected Poems of a Life.”


“Joe had a wry way of looking at things,” said Michael Whelan, a Washington poet and longtime friend, who assisted in the preparation of “Bridges.” “He wrote both prose and poetry and I encouraged him to write short poems, which he did. He liked the haiku.”

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“When you come to the last lines of your last page, one can only hope that what was written will be read, remembered and leave with the reader,” Mr. Chamberlin wrote on “Bridge’s” last page.

After being diagnosed with cancer during the summer of 2016, Mr. Chamberlin announced to his family and friends that his bucket list included walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, visiting Paris — especially Harry’s New York Bar — and traveling to Key West, Fla., where he visited novelist Ernest Hemingway’s house and haunts.

“He was a reflective person who was still trying to figure things out even until the end,” Father Muth said.

A favorite quote of Mr. Chamberlin’s from author David Foster Wallace could be applied to his own life: “The really important freedom involves attention, awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

A memorial Mass will be offered for Mr. Chamberlin at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church, 5401 Loch Raven Blvd.


He is survived by two sons, Christopher M. Chamberlin of Catonsville and John K. Chamberlin of Baltimore; his brother, Thomas M. “Mick” Chamberlin of Hillsborough, N.C.; longtime partner Margaret Osburn of Roland Park; and a grandson. Two marriages ended in divorce.