Fr Gerry Roche lost his life on December 11, 2009, following a break-in at his mission on the outskirts of Kericho town in Western Kenya. Gerry first arrived in Kericho in September 1968, having been ordained a priest for St Patrick’s Missionary Society the previous Easter. He was a native of Athea, Co Limerick, and the ninth of eleven children born to Edmund and Mary Roche of Benmore.
Gerry was one of the first Kiltegan priests to be sent to that area of Kenya. The pioneer missionaries were Mill Hill priests, brothers and sisters and it was from them that Gerry got his first introduction to mission. After a short period as assistant to an older Kiltegan man, Fr Christy Hannon, Gerry moved out on his own and began the mammoth task of setting up a thriving rural mission in Roret complete with church, priest’s house, convent, secondary school, health centre and a network of outstations.
In Roret, he became convinced of the central role of the catechist in the task of evangelisation. He learned the local language and tried his best to respect the customs of the tribe. For example, he invited the young boys, accompanied by their tribal mentor, to come to the church for Mass and a special blessing before they went into the wilderness to prepare for circumcision. He also instituted a traditional blessing at the end of Mass given by an imposing Catholic elder who chanted in praise and petition to Asiis, the God of the Kalenjin people, now recognised by those present as the God of Jesus Christ. He also realised the crucial role of religious sisters and invited them to participate in the work of the mission. He even gave up his own house to accommodate the Mexican Sisters of the Incarnate Word while their convent was being built. Roret became the template for Fr Gerry’s missionary work and he sought to reproduce it in the other missions he founded viz. Kipkelion, Matobo, Chebangang, Keongo and in Londiani and Sacred Heart Parish Kericho, now the cathedral parish, where he also ministered.
Gerry was full of life, joy, optimism and energy. He had a strong passion for justice and a deep empathy with the poor. He had a great love of the Irish language and of Irish traditions. He loved music and dance and sport and had an inexhaustible repertoire of songs. He had a deep faith which he nurtured by daily prayer and he had a mature loyalty to the Church and to the missionary society to which he belonged.
His personal charm made it easy for Gerry to collect money. The simplicity of his life and his boundless generosity stimulated the generosity of others. His own family were the first to respond and they contributed and collected large amounts of money for his missionary work over the years. The same can be said of friends in many countries. He usually spent part of his home-leave working in one or sometimes two American parishes and with the money he received he was able to subsidise the next part of his missionary endeavour. In his will, he wrote that he wished to thank all who befriended him throughout his life and the many people who funded his work have an honoured place among those befrienders. Indeed, I have no doubt that they too are grieving for him.
A farewell Mass was celebrated at Kericho Cathedral on the 17th of December. People were visibly shocked by Fr Gerry’s death and by the manner in which he died. However, they showed great appreciation for his many years of generous service to the community as they listened to the tributes of bishops, politicians and others. Then, his remains were taken to Ireland, accompanied by his nephew Mr Gerard Cunningham and his friend and colleague, Fr Paddy Hyland. He was waked in his sister’s house in Athea where a huge number of people came to offer sympathy to the family. The removal to the Church of St Bartholomew, Athea, took place the following morning, the 20th of December. The church was full to capacity for the Mass which was attended by nine of Gerry’s siblings. The tenth, a sister, was able to join in on a video link with Chicago. The ceremony reflected Gerry’s love for the Irish language and for Irish traditional music. He was interred in the nearby cemetery alongside the remains of his parents. His favourite songs were sung at the graveside as the snow began to fall.
Place of Rest: Athea, Co Limerick