Retiring priest's legacy leaves lasting impact on the community

Madhu Mayer | 6/15/2016, 3:57 p.m.
This Sunday, parishioners of Sacred Heart Church will not be the only ones who will say goodbye to a man ...

Also, when it was proposed that the City of Joliet sell land to a private prison corporation, which intended to build a detention center for undocumented Hispanic immigrants, Bolden said Lescher helped galvanize the Hispanic community and formed a concerned citizens’ group that protested and eventually triumphed as the city abandoned its plans. Lescher also helped the Warehouse Workers for Justice group when they battled against low wages and unfair and unsafe working conditions. But his and others attempts to thwart Silver Cross Hospital from moving out of Joliet was unsuccessful.

"He has Masses where the homilies are directed at everyday life," said Bolden, a graduate of Joliet Township High School and Joliet Junior College. "It is something they can take with them and apply to everyday life. He talks about the rights of people who are not part of acceptable society. He is a man of God."

A champion of social equality like him, Bolden, who opened a law practice in Joliet in 1964, said Lescher knew he would have to leave the pulpit to make a difference outside in the Joliet community.

"He made people aware that inequities of society has to be corrected," said Bolden, who was appointed as a Will County associate judge in 1986 and served with distinction for 14 years. "He helps poor people where he has a program that helps people who cannot pay their rent or fill their prescriptions."

Lescher said he really does not have any regrets about retiring, except joking he would have liked to have been arrested more than once. He and others were charged following a sit-in at a warehouse demanding living wages, appropriate overtime pay and safety assurances for workers.

"Truly, it is all in God's graces," Lescher said in reflecting all his accomplishments. "We can plot and plan, but it is up to God. I am old enough to know we don't control anything in our lives."

Seeing the fruits of his labor, particularly benefitting the African-American community, Bolden said Lescher will leave a big void in Joliet.

"This man transformed the church and the community," Bolden said. "He is a serious man about his religious beliefs. He is a doer, not a talker. He truly inspires people to help others."

Besides his day-to-day duties at the church, Bolden said Lescher sits on the governing board of the Warren-Sharpe Community Center, located a few blocks from Sacred Heart. The center provides struggling families with low-cost preschool, free after-school and summer camp youth programs, as well as a food pantry for the poor. Lescher also regularly visits the county jail and the state maximum security prison in Statesville to offer Masses.

Rather than reside in a nice home during his tenure at Sacred Heart, Lescher lives in the rectory on Joliet’s south side, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

"People come to the rectory when they need help, no matter their color or creed, and know they will be welcomed with love and respect.," said Bolden, who along with his late wife, Kathleen, worked tirelessly to combat discrimination in housing, education and employment. In 2007, he was awarded the NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award.

Parishioner Connie Zagel could not agree more that Lescher will be missed.

"It is great preaching and worship music," she said. "Father Ray makes all feel welcome and cared for." Rev. William Dewan from the Joliet Diocese will be the new priest at Sacred Heart.