Rev. Francis J. Kerr, teacher, missionary, 92

April 14, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Francis Joseph Kerr, S.J., a teacher and missionary who survived imprisonment by the Japanese during World War II, inspired several generations of schoolboys and managed to play tennis into his 80s, died Wednesday of respiratory failure in the Jesuit Infirmary at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. He was 92.

Father Kerr taught dramatics and elocution, and counseled middle school students at Loyola High School at Blakefield from 1981 to 1994, when he retired to the Jesuit Center at Wernersville, Pa.

A consummate baseball fan, sportsman and Maryland history buff, Father Kerr often used historical events as the basis for teaching history and wrote musicals and plays, which were performed by his students.

He was particularly interested in the War of 1812, and no event from that conflict was too elaborate not to be staged. His play, "The Battle of North Point," told of the battle in 1814 that checked the British advance on Baltimore.

"He was a bundle of energy and he never seemed to slow down. He never really wanted to stop working," said Rev. Edward Iscovicz, associate pastor of St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church who met Father Kerr when he was a regent at Loyola High School in 1984.

"He was a great storyteller and could walk through the Jesuit Cemetery at Woodstock, point to the stones and tell a story about who was buried there. Another thing I admired about him was that he studied Latin and read Greek everyday," Father Iscovicz said.

"He was also a great sports fan and tennis player and was my doubles partner when he was 79," Father Iscovicz said.

A baseball fan since his youth in Walbrook, Father Kerr was proud of the fact that he had seen the Orioles play in all of their Baltimore ballparks and had seen Babe Ruth play for the team in spring 1914 at Greenmount Avenue and 29th Street. Ruth was traded that summer.

"A woman in Southern Maryland claimed she had a bat that belonged to Babe Ruth, and he wanted it," said Dennis Narango, Loyola High School director of development. "But she refused to give it to him, claiming that he would give it to some kid, and he told her she was probably right."

One of Father Kerr's favorite incidents, according to Father Iscovicz, occurred in the early 1930s when he was watching John Franklin "Home Run" Baker, the famous Philadelphia Athletics third baseman, during a game. Baker collapsed and fell to the ground.

"Father Kerr gave him conditional absolution from his seat and then said, 'That good Methodist got up and continued on playing,' " Father Iscovicz said.

Another story from Father Kerr's repertoire was the circumstances of his birth, which he blamed on the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. He was due to be born in March, but because his mother became so excited by the fire he was born three weeks earlier.

He studied at Calvert Hall College and graduated from Loyola High School, then on North Calvert Street, in 1921. In 1922, he entered the Society of Jesus at Yonkers, N.Y., and completed his early Jesuit studies at Shadowbrook in Lenox, Mass. After completing his philosophical studies at Weston (Mass.) College, he taught at Xavier High School in New York City. He earned his degree in theology from Woodstock College and was ordained in 1935 by Archbishop Michael Curley, with his brother, who is now deceased.

In 1937, he was sent to the Philippines as a missionary. When the Japanese invaded the islands, he was imprisoned at the Los Banos prison camp at Lipa on the island of Luzon with 2,146 American and European civilians.

During their imprisonment, the Jesuits suffered malnutrition and slow starvation until being liberated by the Army's 11th Airborne Division on Feb. 23, 1945. Father Kerr was awarded the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign ribbon by direct order of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

After the war, Father Kerr taught at Gonzaga High School in Washington and at the University of Scranton. He also taught at Georgetown Preparatory School and, in the early 1960s, served a pastoral ministry in Chaptico and Ridge and LaPlata, and locally at St. Francis and Our Lady of Good Counsel.

A Mass of Christian burial was offered yesterday at Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in Towson.

He is survived by a sister, Kate Lynch of Reisterstown; and 12 nieces and nephews.

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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