Richard Leach was the kind of church pastor who would dress up in costumes to entertain children, sing “Amazing Grace” at a funeral and drop everything to be with someone fighting addiction or alcoholism.

Leach, who touched the lives of thousands of people during his nearly 22-year tenure at Curtis Lake Christian Church in Sanford, died Sunday morning as he prepared for weekend worship, a gathering that instead became an emotional memorial service for the beloved pastor. He was 61.

Leach was always one of the first to arrive at church to set up for services. On Sunday morning, he went to the church garage to get something, and collapsed after apparently having a heart attack. A staff member found him unconscious and called 911. Paramedics tried to revive him but were unsuccessful.

Members were told that Leach had died as they filled the pews for Sunday’s service.

Rob Riley, executive pastor of ministry programs, said they held a modified service Sunday. Children, who usually attend a special program during the service, sat beside their parents. Members shared stories of him and sang worship songs. They prayed for the pastor’s family.

“It was very emotional,” Riley said. “There were lots of tears. It was a hard day. … He touched so many lives at the church in one way, shape or form.”

Leach performed hundreds of wedding ceremonies and funerals throughout his years as pastor. He offered counseling and marriage counseling to members.

He was also a great storyteller. Each week, more than 150 kids in the community would attend the Sunday service and hear him share a story from the Bible. Leach would often dress up in character and act out the story, Riley said.

“He was a very lively personality on stage, especially with the kids,” Riley said. “They really enjoyed his antics. It was always fun to watch Rick on stage share a story with the kids.”

LIFE-SAVER FOR ALCOHOLICS, ADDICTS

Leach was perhaps best known for his dedication to ministries such as Celebrate Recovery, a Christ-centered recovery program that helps individuals struggling with alcoholism, addiction and life’s “hurts, habits and hangups.” The group holds meetings on Tuesday nights at the church. Other 12-step recovery meetings are held throughout the week. An estimated 100 to 150 people attend the church’s recovery programs on a weekly basis.

Family members say Leach overcame his own struggles with alcoholism and devoted his life to helping others with similar addictions. He had been sober for 35 years, said son Matthew Leach of Alfred.

He said his father had a passion for counseling, was a good listener and saw value in everyone, no matter their circumstances.

“My dad wasn’t the type of guy that would stand and preach on Sundays. He was the people’s pastor,” Leach said. “It wasn’t uncommon for my dad to hear from someone with a heroin addiction, or help someone wanting to be sober. He would just pick up his things and go. He would walk beside them.”

Riley said Leach worked closely with the area’s alcoholics and addicts for many years.

“It’s one of his legacies,” Riley said. “The number of people he helped is substantial. … I’m very confident the program will continue here strong and hard. We will continue on in Rick’s memory.”

PRAISES POSTED ON FACEBOOK

News of Leach’s death has shaken the close-knit church community. Hundreds have turned to Facebook to share photos and stories of how he made a difference in their lives.

“Rick counseled me through some rough patches,” Aaron Stam wrote on Facebook. “He helped countless people beat addictions, depression and other challenges, while loving them and never condemning them. His faith, compassion and love of the human spirit was beyond belief. I pray that his family and those mourning him will be given comfort and peace.”

Another post on Facebook said, “Pastor Rick sang ‘Amazing Grace’ at my mom’s funeral.”

Another person wrote, “He also did my brother David’s funeral and sang ‘Mustang Sally’ for my brother. It was his favorite song.”

He is survived by his wife, Holly Leach, of Alfred. They were married for 41 years and raised three children: Matthew Leach; Ben Leach, of Ozark, Missouri; and Sarah Rodriguez, of Portland. He also leaves six grandchildren.

“He was the ultimate mentor, father and grandfather,” Matthew Leach said.

“He was the type of person who couldn’t help but get on the floor to play with the kids.”

HE ‘PRACTICED WHAT HE TAUGHT’

Family members believe Leach suffered a massive heart attack Sunday. He had a heart attack five or six years ago.

Matthew Leach, who works as a paramedic and firefighter in Biddeford and a paramedic in Kennebunk, was notified and rushed to the church after local paramedics worked on his father. The pastor’s wife and daughter rushed to the church as well.

Matthew Leach said his father died doing what he loved – serving – and that he left the world with his little “trademark smirk” on his face. It gave his wife and children a sense of peace.

“We are sad for us and we are sad for our family, but we are not sad for him,” Matthew Leach said. “My dad was a person who practiced what he taught. For him, his treasures were service to people. For him, death isn’t a finality. He is absolutely where he wants to be – in heaven. This was his reward.”

A calling hour will be held from 9:30-10:30 a.m. Friday, followed by a celebration of life at 11 a.m. at the Curtis Lake church, 38 Westview Drive in Sanford.