The summer of 1996 I was planning to move from Ohio back to Massachusetts. I had finished up at Franciscan University of Steubenville and had a job that allowed me to work remotely from anywhere I had an internet connection. My friend, Randy, who was from Phoenix, had got a job as a youth minister in Salem, Mass., and so we agreed to get an apartment together. However, he then was offered by his new boss, the pastor, Fr. Timothy Murphy, to come live in the spacious, mostly empty rectory to save money. Randy was concerned about our agreement, but the pastor extended the invitation to me as well, letting me rent a room and receive board for monthly rent.
That was how I met Fr. Murphy, who would become a friend, a mentor, and a father-figure to me over the next two decades. Fr. Murphy retired from active ministry a few years ago and has now died after a short illness.
In 1996, Fr. Murphy was the newly arrived pastor at Immaculate Conception Parish in Salem, the second oldest parish in Massachusetts after the cathedral-parish in Boston and the oldest church dedicated to Mary in New England. Fr. Murphy was always proud of the history of the parish, including the fact that he was the second pastor named Timothy Murphy, his eponymous predecessor having lived in the 19th century.
Father Murphy had previously been pastor of St. Angela’s Parish in Mattapan since 1979, an inner-city parish with a very large Haitian immigrant population that had grown there as the neighborhood transitioned from mainly Jewish and Irish families who were moving out to the suburbs. Notably, Fr. Murphy was the first of his seminary class to be named a pastor (back in the days when not every parish priest became a pastor and if so after decades of ministry) and he learned of his assignment on the day Pope St. John Paul II celebrated Mass on Boston Common, October 1, 1979. He served St. Angela’s until 1995 when he took a sabbatical year in Rome before going to Salem.
That year in Rome was special to Fr. Murphy and he talked about it often in the following years and he stayed in touch with the other priests from around the United States who were in the same program year. It also prompted him to do more pilgrimages and international travel.
Father grew up in Somerville, Mass., the son of Irish immigrants. His father was a Teamster and his mother was one of a set of twins. He once told me that his mother and aunt were twins but had different birthdays and even different ages because they could never agree on the date and year they were born! He eventually attended Boston College in the 1950s, working his way through school at a local grocery store and paying the $500 tuition himself. After college, he entered St. John Seminary and was ordained in 1963, just as the Second Vatican Council had begun and before the real upheaval in the Church.
His first assignment was at St. Jerome’s in Weymouth where the pastor was having trouble adjusting to the changing times. The story was told that the pastor used to go out in his car with his sister, the housekeeper, riding in the back seat (it wouldn’t do to have a woman in the front seat next to the priest), going through the neighborhoods to catch female parishioners working in their yards wearing shorts and other inappropriate clothing. As soon as he was spotted, the very efficient phone tree started to work, alerting all the women to stay inside or change their clothes.
Fr. Murphy was from a new generation and as he worked with the youth and tried to help them reconcile the changes in the world around them with their faith, his pastor’s adjustment troubles caused some personal conflict and so that assignment ended early. But over the next 30 years, Fr. Murphy would serve two parishes in Boston, including becoming pastor of St. Angela’s in 1979.
Living at the Rectory
When I arrived in Salem, I had two rooms of my own and a bathroom basically to myself. I was on the second of three floors of the house, and there was a nice balcony outside my windows that was perfect for sitting on warm evenings. The parish itself is about 100 yards from Salem Harbor and so you could sometimes catch a nice sea breeze. We spent many evenings sitting on that porch, Fr. Murphy smoking his pipe, me with a cigar, the Red Sox on the radio, Jameson in a glass, and me listening to Fr. Murphy’s stories of his family, his priesthood, his trips to Ireland, his time in Rome. Sometimes we’d talk about the parish and the town or situations in the Church or the diocese or we’d come up with solutions to parish closings or evangelization or what have you.
Fr. Murphy was very forward-looking. He was open to Life Teen and the internet. He let me put a computer in his office and create a parish website. He let the youth group take over some rooms in the empty school to decorate as a youth room and encouraged them to be creative with making videos or doing special activities. Occasionally he even took part in the videos.
He also went on World Youth Day trips with the teens. In 1979, he went to Paris with the group from the parish and I went along as part of the archdiocesan team. We didn’t see each other much on the trip, but on one of our free days we met up in Lisieux, hometown of St. Therese. I’d gone with my brother and Father had separately traveled with another priest to little town in Normandy. On the train, they’d encountered Cardinal Law and his secretary and ended up tagging along as they visited the Carmel, going into the cloister with the cardinal to see St. Therese’s cell and other places the public couldn’t usually go.
In 2000, Fr. Murphy went to World Youth Day in Rome and on that trip he was in his glory because he could take his kids to all the special places he knew. I’m not sure how many more World Youth Days he went to, but I think eventually he stopped going because of trouble with his knee. However, he still went on pilgrimages. He often took parish groups to Québec to the various shrines in that area and also on at least one to Ireland. Those trips included a lot of older folks so he didn’t have to run to keep up with kids.
He was also a man who looked outward, beyond his parish responsibilities. For many years, he welcomed priests from a diocese in southern India to come to Salem over the summer, allowing them to raise funds for their ministries and experience life in the US while they also provided coverage for vacations and time off. One of those priests struck up a friendship with a friend of mine, another parishioner, who visited him in India for three months and upon his return started a charity to raise money to build churches there.
Fr. Murphy was also seen as a great mentor for younger men becoming priests. He was often asked to have seminarians from St. John Seminary or from Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary come to Immaculate Conception for pastoral work or as part of their diaconate year. The latter seminary focused on “second career” men, who were older and had more life experience and were in formation for dioceses around the country and Father did a particularly good job with them. His priestly legacy will live on in them.
I moved out of the rectory in about 2002 or 2003 as the scandal was hitting the Church. Not that anyone had said anything, but Fr. Murphy knew that at any time someone from the archdiocese could tell him to end the arrangement. By then I’d lived there for four great years, but I knew it was time to move on. I stayed local though and in early 2005 Melanie and I got engaged at Immaculate Conception church… or nearly so.
My plan to ask Melanie to marry me involved our routine of daily Mass followed by me popping the question and then getting a blessing from Fr. Murphy after. That didn’t happen that way. But he did help us in our marriage preparation, letting us set a date 5 months later, below the usual 6 month minimum. He knew me and Melanie very well, and knew that we understood the Church’s teachings on marriage. With great joy, he married us during a Mass on August 13, 2005. A year later in June 2006, he baptized Isabella. In May 2008, he baptized Sophia in the same church. By the time Ben came along in 2009, we had moved to Holbrook, but he made the hour-plus trek for the baptism. When Anthony’s time for baptism came in 2011, Fr. Murphy had retired from active ministry and I knew that the long drive was a lot to ask, plus we wanted to acknowledge our new pastor’s role in the life of our family so we just had a regular parish baptism and then again for Lucia in 2013.
We haven’t seen each other as much as I’d have liked in the 9 years since Melanie and I moved away from Salem. The last time I saw Fr. Murphy was almost exactly one year ago, I think, at the annual Banquet for Massachusetts Citizens for Life where I work. I was running around like crazy so there wasn’t more than time for a quick hello. Some time before that, a small group of friends had gathered with him in Waltham where he was living at a parish to grill steaks and hang out.
I heard just a few weeks ago that Fr. Murphy was dying from liver cancer. He had only weeks to live and I wanted to see him again. I only got to see him just a short while ago, for an hour, at Regina Cleri, the residence for the aged and infirm priests of the Archdiocese of Boston. We chatted like the old days, catching up on people we both knew and recalling some old stories. I would have liked to have spent more time, but he was tired and had many more people coming to say goodbye to him. He had really affected so many lives.
The thing about Fr. Murphy is that he wasn’t given to flowery language or flights of fancy. He was the very picture of a down-to-earth parish priest who talked plainly, but also had a very practical and deep faith that he neither hid nor paraded. His homilies were good, but didn’t try to be clever or include rhetorical flourishes, yet when he got passionate about a subject, he could be very moving and inspiring. When asked his advice for talking to young men about vocations, he said: “Pray to know God’s will and talk to a priest.” That was Fr. Murphy in a nutshell: Faithful and practical.
Nor was he too serious. He didn’t tend to worry or despair when considering the state of either his parish (usually finances), the Church or the world. He was ready with a laugh and could cut through the nonsense with a quiet and sensible word.
As I left Fr. Murphy for the last time after our visit, he gave me his priestly blessing for me and my family. And then I thanked him for all he had done for me, I told him we’d pray for him, and then asked him to remember me to our mutual friend, St. Therese, when he saw her.
“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’” (Matthew 25:23)
Fr. Murphy passed away early in the morning on November 8, 2017, in the same way he lived his priesthood: Quietly, peacefully, and with dignity. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.