Home » MKLM » Exquisite grace — and bucking the system

Gerry Lee with the Enfoque photography group he started in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. 

Maryknoll Lay Missioners mourns the death (on July 24, 2022) of Gerry Lee, a long-time Maryknoll lay missioner who, through his work with the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, became a national leader in social-justice advocacy.

Gerry and his wife, Patti McKenna, together with their daughters, Amanda, Abigail and Jessica, served as a Maryknoll lay missioner family in Venezuela from 1984 until 1994. He worked in community organizing, youth development and human rights advocacy. Upon their return to the United States, Gerry served our organization in development and from 2000 until 2006 as a co-director on our leadership team. His time in development and the leadership of Maryknoll Lay Missioners in Ossining was a time of great changes, as the organization transitioned to become a separate entity of its own.

Gerry worked as director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns from 2013 until 2019.

The family is planning a Celebration of Life later this fall and will share the details as soon as they are available. They also ask, in lieu of flowers, to please consider:

  • doing a random act of kindness, something Gerry loved doing often
  • a donation to his work passion, the Maryknoll Office of Global Concerns – by following this link https://donate.maryknoll.org and add “in memory of Gerry Lee for MOGC” under the Make this a Tribute section.
  • sharing your favorite Gerry story, memory, photo either on his FB page or by mail to 714 S 19th Ave, Yakima, WA 98902 (please no flowers, due to heat and travel 😊).

Fellow lay missioners and classmates and others remember Gerry’s extraordinary life: 


From Lisa Sullivan:

As I was searching my heart to find words to try to express what Gerry Lee’s life had meant, I came across a post by his daughters on Father’s Day, from a poem by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda:

He dies slowly,
he who does not travel,
does not read,
does not listen to music,
does not find grace in himself.

Gerry’s life was the total opposite of what Neruda lamented seeing in some. Certainly, Gerry traveled and read and loved music. But above all, Gerry found in himself an exquisite grace that exuded life.

Even when Gerry was handed a death sentence — a diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer — he turned it instead into a mandate to live even more fully. He did this for a thousand more days than he was given, bucking, as always, the system.

Gerry, Patti, Amanda and Abigail in a New York Times photo accompanying an article about the 1984 Sending ceremony of Maryknoll lay missioners.

Gerry had often turned society’s expectations upside down. Tall and athletic, poised and well-spoken, it was easy to imagine Gerry as a corporate lawyer or university president. But instead, he chose to go and live in the ramshackle emergency housing project of Tacagua, Venezuela, on a precarious trash-filled mountainside outside of Caracas, sharing life with some of the poorest and most forgotten people on earth.

And he was just so happy about it. I first met Gerry on a hot August day, 38 years ago, on the porch of Bethany House at Maryknoll — the first day of our Maryknoll lay missioner formation program. He could hardly contain his enthusiasm to be heading with his family to Tacagua in a few months. His passion for mission was magnetic. I would not have been surprised at that moment if someone had told me then that he would be elected to the Maryknoll Lay Missioners leadership team, as he was 15 years later.

Our first three years of mission took our families in different directions, but as we renewed our commitment, we decided that we wanted to work together. There began one of the most wonderful adventures of my life, working closely with the McKenna-Lees in the barrios of Barquisimeto, Venezuela, for six years.

A few months into our work, Gerry announced that we should hightail it to the beach because we needed a break. One of Gerry’s many endearing qualities was that he worked hard and played hard. Life just had so much to savor! So we packed kids and tents and arepas and sunscreen into our rusty 30-year old jeeps, boarded even more rusted boats, and deposited ourselves on the tiny tropical island of Sombrero.

Immediately, Gerry raced into the waters with the gusto and skill that defined all he did. “Let’s snorkel!” Of course, none of us but him knew how to do this. But Gerry was always willing to teach anyone who wanted to learn anything.

Gerry outfitted me with mask and instructions. I’ll never forget the moment of submerging into a whole new world. The silence, the clarity of the turquoise waters, the brilliance of the orange, the yellow and black striped fish, the living coral. It opened my heart to that world and to its difference, its beauty. I knew immediately that this was the perfect metaphor for the mission that Gerry and I and our families were living: To immerse ourselves completely into a whole new world, donning a mask of love, and allow the beauty to reveal itself.

Gerry with children at the Tacagua housing project in Caracas, where he first worked.

Giving lenses to others turned out to be precisely the first great mission work that Gerry set out to do in our barrios. He put cameras and video recorders into the hands of young people who never dreamed of having such tools. His Enfoque group filmed, developed and shared images of day-to-day life in these barrios that imbued our community with dignity.

The other lens that Gerry fitted to so many others was that of human rights. Shortly after we had settled into our new lives and homes in Venezuela a massive citizen protest in Caracas turned into a massacre carried out by government forces. It later became known as the Caracazo, but at the moment, there was only silence, censorship, dread, fear. The truth wasn’t revealed until several brave groups searched the hilltops of the main Caracas cemetery known as La Peste and uncovered mass graves.

Gerry’s newly founded group APRODEH was one of these, and he returned time and time to La Peste to bring more and more people to give testimony and make sure that all bodies were identified.

I remember the twin Carmen telling me that on their return Gerry pulled aside the jeep and said. “And now, let’s all just cry.” Even though Gerry was a master at connecting the dots to the causes of injustice, as he did so well in his leadership role with the Maryknoll Global Concerns Office, his impetus for action was always from the heart.

Patti, Gerry, Abigail and Amanda

As much as Gerry taught me about mission, hands down what he taught me most was how to parent. His kids were a few years older than ours, and such extraordinary girls, that I knew I had better pay attention to something Gerry and Patti must be doing very, very right. After close years of observation, I would boil the McKenna-Lee treatise on childrearing to three simple rules:

  1. Never ever skimp on delicious food or hugs.
  2. Let your kids be exactly who they are.
  3. Lead the kids into deep waters, and when you know they are ready, let them go.

I learned that last trick not metaphorically, but very physically. We were at yet another beach, Catica (I make us sound more like beach bums than missioners!), when I suddenly looked around and my sons Mikel and Pachi, ages 6 and 8, were missing. There was no sign of them — or of Gerry and his girls — and the main shore was either a long hike or a half mile swim away, in the open ocean. I raced through the mountainous path, heart in hand, to discover my boys lounging on the shore, having swum back with Gerry and the girls.

Gerry knew they were ready for this challenge (and he was a stroke away, just in case). They were both so proud of their accomplishment, which sealed a lifetime of passion for swimming. And for braving life’s deep waters.

As I got word of Gerry’s passing, I knew I needed to go to the woods. Gerry found ever more solace in nature, moving his last years with Patti to a cabin in the woods of Washington state. As I walked along the meandering creek, I noticed it took different shapes along its path. I thought about the many expressions of Gerry’s life: missioner, urban farmer, human rights activist, builder, but always carried by the same clear waters: his love for Patti, his family, his God, the poor, the oppressed.

I heard a gentle rustle and was surprised to see an enormous heron crossing the creek. Slowly, gracefully, he crossed to the other side. And then suddenly he lifted off, majestic in his enormous wing spread, his body almost an electric blue in the flash of sunshine. Goodbye/hello, Gerry.

I remembered that Gerry had recently posted a poem by Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things”:

When despair for the world grows in me….
I go and lie down where the … great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things….
I rest in the grace of the world and am free.

Gracias, compadre, for the journey, for the lens, for the love. ¡Te queremos mucho!

Lisa Sullivan
Returned lay missioner (Class of 1984 – Bolivia and Venezuela)


From Teresa Rhodes:

Everything in Gerry’s life was decided by love. His spirituality was both expansive and practical, in tune with global concerns and the fine details of organic gardening. His imagination was seized by the burning desire to bring justice and love to a broken planet. Gerry bore witness to profound suffering, carrying within him the stories of people much sinned against.

He did so with tender hope. Gerry believed that we are capable of so much more than war and injustice. He knew we could love because he had found God. His greatest joy was Patti, Amanda, Abby and Darin, Jessica and Alex, and his precious grandchildren, Otis and Cora. To know Gerry was to become part of a family that never met a stranger and lived profoundly hospitable lives.

Read Teresa’s full tribute at ‘Falling in love decides everything.’

Teresa Rhodes 
Returned Maryknoll lay missioner (Class of 1984 – Peru and United States)


From Heidi Cerneka: 

Gerry was an amazing, astute spiritual man. He was great on policy and fundamental to the Maryknoll Lay Missioners and Maryknoll family. He was also key for the Maryknoll Office of Global Concerns. He was someone who had great vision for a just and compassionate world as well as for Maryknoll Lay Missioners.

At one point, in an extended leadership meeting, we were talking about whether we should grow the number of missioners or whether we shouldn’t do that because of finances, and Gerry really spoke prophetically about who we are and how we need to grow and how we need to trust the Spirit to be with us when we take our next steps.

He gave his life to mission, to justice, to Maryknoll and to the many extended families he had — incl. his Maryknoll family, his Venezuelan family and everyone who was a part of his amazing life.

Heidi Cerneka
Maryknoll lay missioner (Class of 1996 – Brazil, Kenya, U.S.-Mexico border)


Leadership team in 2002

From Sheila Matthews:

Gerry was a gentle man with two great loves — his family and Maryknoll. I had the privilege of serving with Gerry on leadership team, where he both supported me and challenged me to grow. A lover of nature and in particular trees, I would like to use the following metaphor of how Gerry impacted my life. You taught me to stand firm when necessary, to bend with the breeze if called for and to remember how interconnected we all are. May your witness continue to inspire us — your love of family, zeal for mission and passion for justice and peace.

Sheila Matthews 
Returned Maryknoll lay missioner (Class of 1980 – Guatemala, El Salvador, United States) 


From Mike Gable

For my family and myself, Gerry was a bedrock of patience, compassion and kindness as we began our service in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. Gerry, Patti and their girls were so inviting and gracious while setting up our house before we arrived. Likewise, Gerry and his family were so helpful giving us vital advice and support as were settling in to a very different culture, language, etc. His leadership and example of responding to the needs of others and solidarity in the barrio was inspiring. Looking back on my family’s experience of 30 years ago there, we are ever grateful for Gerry’s and his family’s companionship with us….a true Maryknoller through and through.

Mike Gable
Returned Maryknoll lay missioner (Class of 1988 – Venezuela) 


From Ted Miles:

I met Gerry when he worked for the Office of Global Concerns and I was with Catholic Relief Services. His unbridled commitment to justice and advocacy was an inspiration to all of us who contributed in some way to the U.S. Catholic Church’s advocacy efforts. When I joined Maryknoll Lay Missioners years later, he reached out consistently to offer assistance, perspective, wisdom and history. Even as he struggled with early stages of cancer, he never wavered from his desire to help others.

I will remember most and be forever grateful for his gentleness, warmth and cheer amidst his tireless efforts for justice and peace. When such efforts seemed fruitless, he never lost hope and faith in what could be.

Ted Miles
Executive Director, Maryknoll Lay Missioners


From Susan Nagele

I first met Gerry in 1984 when our orientation group gathered in New York. The word that comes to mind is family. Gerry, Patti, Amanda and Abbey were a wonderful family which was one of the most important means of living out the Gospel and evangelization. They went to Venezuela and I went to Tanzania. Our group came back together for renewal every three years for the next nine years and I marveled at how their family personified the love of God — and grew to include Jessica of course! Without minimizing the challenges of being a family in another culture, they lived the Gospel in ways that were never possible for us single people.

As time went on I worked in Sudan and Kenya and Gerry served in leadership for the association. Those years were a blur for me, but I reconnected more with him when he became director of the Maryknoll Office of Global Concerns. His total commitment to peace through active nonviolence impressed me immensely. He and his team gave me — and all of us working in such situations — the tools we needed to follow Jesus as peacefully as possible. With gratitude for all the grace and love he brought into our lives, may he now rejoice in the peace and love of Christ.

Susan Nagele
Returned Maryknoll lay missioner (Class of 1984 – Tanzania, Sudan, Kenya, United States) 


From Susan Gunn:

We are heartbroken to lose Gerry, our dear friend and partner in mission. At the same time, we are overwhelmed with gratitude for his life and all the ways he shared his gifts. Gerry was a deeply spiritual and compassionate man who always responded to injustice and suffering with unwavering confidence in the promise of God’s peace and love.

Susan Gunn
Director, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns. 


From Father Lance Nadeau, MM:

Condolences to Gerry’s family and friends. I knew him and his family many years ago in the seminary and later. His life made our world a better place.

Fr. Lance Nadeau, MM
Superior General, Maryknoll Society of Fathers and Brothers


From Cathy Rowan:

I’m holding sadness and gratitude since hearing of Gerry’s passing.  My family was blessed with the McKenna-Lee’s support and friendship in mission during our years in São Paulo and Ossining. Gerry and I worked together in fundraising for the lay missioners in the late 90s  –  he kept his cool and focus and persistence in challenging times.

What is present to me now is a sound memory, from the 90s, of Gerry singing “Wade In the Water” in a deep, commanding voice during a prayer service at Bethany. Gerry had the quiet confidence and faith to be able to wade through troubled waters and live and share his commitment to the Gospel wherever he found himself.

Now God has called him to the Other Side of those stirring waters. Rest in peace and beauty, dear friend and brother.

Cathy Rowan
Returned Maryknoll lay missioner (Class of 1987 – Brazil and United States)


From Vicki Armour-Hileman:

One of my fondest memories of Gerry was from a trip he, Sam Stanton and I took to the Vatican and several Associations of the Faithful and other groups in Europe. Friday night after a round of visits of various offices and people, I announced I wanted to go to Shabbat services at a local Italian synagogue. Gerry and Sam agreed to tag along.

After inching through the line for security, our feet already aching from standing so long, we were finally let into the ancient and ornate synagogue. We stuttered to a stop in the entrance of the building, gaping in amazement as we looked up at the architecture. That posture flagged us as newcomers, prompting the local women to take me in hand, leading me up to the women’s balcony. From the stairs, I turned to smile and wave at Gerry and Sam who were still standing where I left them in the foyer.

Gerry’s face was priceless. “Wait. You’re LEAVING us?” he called up to me.

Oops. Had I forgotten to mention that women and men are separated in traditional synagogues, which would mean that I, the only Jewish member of our little group, would be absent, and Gerry and Sam would have to make their way through a service in an unfamiliar religious tradition, conducted all in Hebrew, a language they didn’t understand?

At that point, all I could do was offer an apologetic shrug and assure them I’d meet them outside once the service was over. Gerry and Sam looked at each other and started to laugh, then braced their shoulders and followed the local men into the main sanctuary.

I was in some trepidation about the state I would find my two companions at the end of the service, but when we were reunited, both were in high spirits, chatting excitedly about what they had witnessed, asking questions, making comparisons with Catholic traditions.

When I look back at that moment, I think it captures something important about who Gerry was. He was willing to walk into the unknown, with a spirit of gentle curiosity. He seemed to trust that, despite any difficulties along the way, the path into the unknown—into mystery—always leads to knowing ourselves and God better.

That, I suppose, is also part of the missionary spirit that guided so much of Gerry’s life. In the face of something new, he had a mix of surprisingly cheerful practicality and reverence for mystery — whether he was heading out for the adventure of living in Venezuela, buying an abandoned house that would require a lot of TLC in Philadelphia, attending an Orthodox synagogue in Italy, or finally taking the long journey through cancer.

When I imagine him now, I picture him, in an echo of that night in Italy, as he stood on the threshold of the vast, unfamiliar sanctuary. I see him once again squaring his shoulders and taking a step into that unknown but holy space, filled with the presence of the Divine, waiting to welcome him.

Vicki Armour-Hileman
Returned Maryknoll lay missioner (Class of 1988 – Hong Kong, Thailand, United States), admissions manager


From Sam Stanton:

I first met Gerry Lee and his family at the first Latin American representative meeting in Venezuela in 1987. Gerry impressed me from the beginning as a very genuine, friendly and welcoming person. As I got to know him over the years and worked directly with him, that impression would be evermore confirmed. What I discovered over the years was the deep spiritual man he was. Gerry had truly walked a journey with his God and searched for a deeper relationship with God. The mission ministry that he and Patti and their girls lived in Venezuela and beyond, witnessed to that search for God and to their commitment to building a more just and compassionate world.

Two memories of Gerry from these 36 years have been present in my mind in these days. The first is 9/11. Gerry, Vicki Armour-Hileman and I had been in Rome for a week of meetings with the Vatican Council for the Laity and went on to Dublin for meetings with the Columban Mission Society. When we arrived in Dublin, we quickly found out that the attack on the towers had taken place. We watched the towers fall at the Columban Center and dealt with the shock as well as the concern for our families and friends. We soon learned that we would not be leaving from Dublin as planned but that we would be in Ireland for an extended period. I decided to visit relatives in County Down, and Vicki and Gerry accompanied me. That weekend we visited Belfast and attended Mass at the cathedral in Catholic West Belfast. After Mass Marist Sisters invited us for tea and gave us a history of the neighborhood that had suffered so much repression. Being away from home at that moment was tough, but being together gave us strength.

The other experience that has been so sacred is this past year. I got to know Gerry and his spiritual depth on a whole other level. After I had a melanoma removed, I was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer in April 2021. When I started a yearlong cancer treatment, Gerry reached out to me. Since then, we have talked on several occasions. It was a real spiritual accompaniment, and I got to know the depth of his spirituality and of his person. Gerry was truly a man in touch with God. His strength and openness to facing his reality and preparing for death was a testimony and gave me strength for my own journey of dealing with cancer.

About a month ago Gerry sent me a card. He had written in the card: “Hi Sam, here’s a few words of encouragement from the Psalmist: Peace, Gerry …….and the text of Psalm 42: “As a doe longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you Oh God.”

God bless you, brother, on your new part of the journey. Your life lived among us will continue to give us hope.

Sam Stanton
Returned Maryknoll lay missioner (Class of 1985 – Chile, United States), former executive director


 

 

 

Photo album

courtesy of Maryknoll Lay Missioners and Maryknoll Archives. Click on the photos.

 

Lisa Sullivan Lisa Sullivan
Lisa Sullivan (Class of 1984) served as a Maryknoll lay missioner in Venezuela and Bolivia for 20 years and later worked as the Latin America Coordinator for School of the Americas Watch. She developed and led a food garden program for children at her permacultura farm in Venezuela. She recently returned to the U.S. and will be working with the Maryknoll Office of Global Concerns.