By Nadia Maria Smith
CS&T Staff Writer
Father Joseph E. Walsh, 87, pastor emeritus of St. Francis de Sales Parish in Lenni, died Dec. 29, 2008, after nearly 62 years of priestly service to the Church. Cardinal Justin Rigali celebrated the funeral Mass at St. Francis de Sales Church on Saturday, Jan. 3, 2009.
Father Walsh had been sick for some time and living at St. Francis Country House, an archdiocesan nursing facility in Darby, where he died.
His only surviving immediate family member, his younger sister Cora Walsh-Burke, says she can’t believe he’s gone.
“He did live a good life. He was 87, but when you love someone, no matter how old, you want to hold on to them,” she said.
He not only celebrated his sister’s marriage Mass, but also baptized all four of her children and five grandchildren.
“He loved children,” she said. “When Joe came into a room he was immediately drawn to the babies and he knew how to hold them.”
Father Walsh is also survived by his brothers-in-law, Richard Burke and Robert Darlington, along with several nieces and nephews.
One of six children, he was a twin born on October 10, 1921 in Philadelphia to the late James A. Walsh and the late Mary V. Ehresman.
He grew up in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia and attended St. John the Baptist Parochial School and High School and St. Joseph Preparatory High School in Philadelphia, before entering St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
“As a boy Joe was a tease,” Walsh-Burke said. “He was six years older than me and he and my sister Mary were [charged with] watching me. When he was in the seminary we missed him awful. Everyone was proud of him – my mother and father were exceedingly proud that he became a priest.”
Father Walsh was ordained on May 31, 1947 at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul by Bishop Hugh L. Lamb. His first assignment was as parochial vicar at St. Paul Parish in Philadelphia. He went on to serve as parochial vicar at Old St. Mary’s Parish in Philadelphia; St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Reading; St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Norristown; St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Fairless Hills; Holy Martyrs Parish in Oreland; St. Dominic Parish in Philadelphia; and St. David Parish in Willow Grove. He also served as chaplain of Catholic Home in Marple and Sacred Heart Hospital in Norristown.
In 1974, Father Walsh was appointed pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish where he served for 16 years before being appointed pastor emeritus in 1990.
“Father Walsh was a very good and dedicated priest who loved the people and he loved Lenni. He was in ministry for 34 years as pastor and pastor emeritus, and he accomplished a great deal in his ministry,” said Msgr. Charles P. Vance, the pastor of St. Philip Neri in Lafayette Hill who was the homilist at Father Walsh’s funeral Mass.
Msgr. Vance was pastor for 10 years at St. Francis de Sales while Father Walsh was pastor emeritus. He has many fond memories of Father Walsh, especially of his love for animals, he said.
“He was like St. Francis of Assisi,” Msgr. Vance said. “I remember one year everyone gave him bird feeders, so he had one on every window of the rectory. It was like Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds.’ We were being attacked by birds. I told him that I didn’t mind if he fed the birds but did he have to feed every one of them in Delaware County?”
His sister remembers how happy he was when he became pastor because “when he was in the other rectories he wasn’t permitted to have pets, so when he became pastor he went all out. He had two dogs, a cat, birds and fish,” his sister said.
Walsh-Burke was touched by the outpouring of love that she witnessed at her brother’s funeral Mass.
“The church was packed with people young and old. I was overwhelmed. The parish really showed their love with everything they did to make it nice for Joe,” she said. “I was so grateful to Cardinal Rigali and all the 27 priests that assisted in the Mass. [Joe] gave everything he could to the Church and the Church honored him.”
But it doesn’t surprise her, she said, because “he left a legacy of love.”
CS&T staff writer Nadia Maria Smith may be reached at email@example.com or (215) 965-4614.