His family said he was a man everybody who came in contact with could look up to in the Catholic Church.
Anne Cunningham, a niece of Fr Jeremiah Roche, was the last member of his family to see him alive.
Ms Cunningham who works with the HSE in Cork, speaking from the family at Dirreen, Athea, yesterday said: “I dropped him back to Cork airport in October after he had been home. He had been planning to retire next year.”
She said his return visits to Ireland always coincided with the main fixtures in the All Ireland hurling championship. He went to the local primary school in Athea and St Michael’s secondary college in Listowel before going on to study for the priesthood.
Fr Roche is survived by six sisters Kit, Mary Anne, Eileen, Nora, Hannah and Margaret; and four brothers, Patrick, Noel, Christy and Michael who lives in Charleville.
Five of the family live in Chicago.
Fr Roche’s sister, Nora Cunningham and her husband, retired school teacher Timothy, learned of the tragedy at around 7am yesterday in a phone call from the Kiltegan Fathers.
Their daughter Anne said: “We are all shattered. Fr Jer was very well known and came home nearly every year. He was a man people looked up to in the Catholic church. Maybe some good will come from his tragic death, some green shoots.”
She said the Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin rang to offer his sympathy. She said Mr Martin said the Government and his department would give all necessary assistance to the family.
Ms Cunningham said: “When he came home we used to organise dances and other fund raising events. He also raised a lot of money with the help of the family in Chicago. He was always collecting clothes and children’s games to bring back with him.
“I think the wealth he saw when he came back to Ireland in a way bothered him, as he saw a lot of waste. He had not time for the material things in life and had a great sense of social justice, and was always happy living a life of truth and justice and his concern in life was to help give food and shelter to the poor he worked among.”
She said her brother Jer Cunningham, who works with Irish Aid in Zambia was travelling to Kenya and they were awaiting a call from him.
Fr Roche was a fluent Irish speaker and loved hurling.
Ms Cunningham said: “He loved to speak in Irish and when he met with other Irish priests in Kenya they used speak mostly in Irish. I suppose it could have been a code as well. When at home he was always eager to go to hurling matches when Limerick were playing. A neighbour, Mary Sheahan, used send him out videos of the matches and she used to phone him to let him know who was playing well for Limerick.”
Ann Molyneaux who works for the retired parish priest of Athea, Canon Patrick Kelly said: “Fr Jer was full of life and he was totally dedicated to the people he worked with in Kenya and their welfare. He wanted little for himself and everything he got was for his people in Kenya.”