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The Lee-McKenna family in 2020

Gerry Lee was the incarnation of one of his favorite poems:

Nothing is more practical than
Finding God, that is than
Falling in Love
In a quite absolute final way.

What you are in love with
What seizes your imagination
Will affect Everything.

It will decide
What will get you out of bed
In the morning
What you do with your evenings,
How you spend your weekends
What you read, who you know,
What breaks your heart,
And what amazes you with
Joy and gratitude. 

Fall in love, stay in love,
And it will decide everything. 

(Often attributed to Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ (1907–1991), but by Fr. Joseph Whelan, SJ)

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.

Messages from around the world detail the impact of Gerry’s life. There are testimonies of Gerry’s endless contributions, at the heart of which was encouraging others to give voice to their struggles, hopes and dreams. The suffering of oppressed peoples broke his heart. He could do nothing less than put all his considerable talent to work on behalf of others in a “quite absolute, final way.”

He taught young people to frame the world through photography, something mentioned in a note of gratitude sent from Venezuela. Gerry’s ability to capture everyday miracles gave us thousands of images that help us to look again — the very meaning of metanoia.

Patti McKenna, Teresa Rhodes and Gerry Lee

People were drawn to Gerry because he respected everyone and exuded a sense of dignity. The pressed down, overflowing words sent to Gerry speak volumes about how love decided everything for the McKenna-Lee family.

Gerry and Patti shared a vision that could look at an abandoned house in Philadelphia and see the beauty of its original architecture. They rebuilt the house as a family, soon forming relationships with people around the neighborhood. It was a long labor of love with more than a few challenges that would have sent anyone else screaming out the door. Over many evenings and weekends, the house’s original beauty came back to life. Gerry became a man of all trades, tending the innumerable tasks with the presence he brought to everything else in life.

We celebrated Amanda’s medical school graduation there on a beautiful, amazing May afternoon. Gerry pulled me aside in the kitchen and admitted that there had been a bit of a wrinkle that morning. He decided to nail a baseboard to the kitchen wall and “nailed straight through the water pipe. I could not have done it if I tried.” The resulting leak was patched, water cleaned up and the celebration went forward. Gerry’s sense of humor and remarkable endurance again rose to meet the occasion.

When COVID hit, Gerry was terribly vulnerable because of his illness and treatments. He grew tired of worry and ordered a book to help him think about other things. The book was War and Peace. Gerry’s curiosity and intellectual rigor served him well in any crisis. He always took the second look to find patterns and meaning in complex situations.

Gerry’s generosity of spirit was remarkable, as evidenced by his approach to pancreatic cancer. He decided to live fully while he could, which led to a series of family trips, including a journey to Yellowstone, where they were snowed in for several days.

The ones so dear to him were his joy and gratitude through days when the suffering of the human condition became his own. Gerry was most at home in nature, and together the family walked with him through forests, mountains and along glaciers. They seized every opportunity to be together and explore the world.

Suzanne Simard wrote in her book Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest that older trees nourish, protect and support the growth of seedlings. When a mother tree dies to make room in the canopy for a young tree’s access to the sun, it pushes all its carbon and other nutrients back into the root system as energy for new life. Gerry was a mother tree who opened up light for the next generation. He gave us his elemental love to carry life forward, absorbing his beauty into our own cells.

There is a gap in the canopy now, but new life is drawn toward the sun. All who loved Gerry, are amazed with joy and gratitude that we had the gift of knowing him. His love still decides everything.


For additional tributes, photos and remembrances of Gerry Lee by fellow lay missioners and others, please visit Exquisite grace — and bucking the system.

Teresa Rhodes Teresa Rhodes
Teresa Rhodes Mc Gee is a returned Maryknoll lay missioner (Class of 1984) who served in Peru and the United States. She worked for the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers in development and human resources and is the author of The Comforter: Stories of Loss and Rebirth and of Jim's Last Summer: Lessons on Living from a Dying Priest.