Sister Murphy is honored with Sarah's Circle award for female spirituality

April 01, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

Racing through the chaos of the playground, young Rosaleen Murphy looked up and glimpsed serenity.

"I stopped in the middle of everything to see Sister Rose Theresa walking placidly, saying the rosary," she says, remembering a moment from more than 60 years ago, back in the first grade in Chester, Pa.

"She looked so peaceful, so untouched by the melee of the school yard. It was a grace moment -- I decided I was going to be a nun."

She did. And her grace moment has lasted a lifetime.

This year, Sister Murphy, 68, celebrates her golden anniversary of joining the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. The gold band on her finger is witness to 50 years as a bride of Christ.

It is also the year that her quiet, steady work to empower women within the Roman Catholic church was honored with a Sarah's Circle spirituality award from the Women's Institute of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. "People know that in this church I have been a promoter of women, but I always have been faithful to church tradition," says Sister Murphy, who began religious life as a teacher and has chaired the office of planning and church councils for the Archdiocese of Baltimore since 1977.

"Some Catholic women can't bring themselves to attend Mass celebrated by a man, but my [Irish] roots go back to people who risked their lives to attend Mass and I will never abandon that," says the daughter of immigrants.

"As a feminist and a Catholic, I consider myself both -- and. To be either/or does not fit with me."

The award to Sister Murphy is one of five given to Maryland women this year, the other recipients being a state legislator, a university professor, a spiritual healer and the head of the YWCA. Sarah's Circle acknowledges the strength and endurance of female spirituality in a male-dominated world. In accepting her award, Sister Murphy said of the male-dominated church: "I have learned that inert systems hardly change and when they do it is a slow rate. . . . After centuries of inertia, the Roman Catholic Church has opened its door to the modern world . . . and started on a change journey."

After persevering against her parents' misgivings -- "My mother considered the community too strict and my father thought I was too young" -- young Rosaleen Murphy began a personal-change journey the moment she entered the convent at 18.

There, among the good sisters of the Belgian-based order, she was told that the name Rosaleen was too fancy for a nun.

She became Sister Rosalie Murphy.

Over the next 50 years she grew from a naive, obedient teen-ager to a mature woman who has come to believe in a God that is male, female and more.

"When I internalized this awareness, the possibility of change was just as sacred. And when you accept that, process becomes very meritorious. . . . I was willing to stay with the church to help the process of change."

That process will ultimately lead to the ordination of women, Sister Murphy believes, when the people -- the true church, in her opinion -- desire it.

"When the people in the pew say they want married clergy and women clergy, that's when it will happen and it will happen fast."

The feminization of Sister Rosalie Murphy began in 1972 when she was host to a consciousness-raising session for women at her order's provincial house in Ilchester.

Through her activity in the Vietnam War peace movement, she met women of different faiths and backgrounds who convinced her that women needed to get together and talk candidly about the crosses they had to carry.

"These women were lawyers, doctors, people who worked for corporations. I was already in my 40s, but very naive because of the protective culture I lived in," she says.

"For the first time in my life I heard harrowing stories of what they had to do for promotion, the violence within marriages, and the way they had to compromise themselves for advancement.

"I was taken aback by the abuse women suffered from husbands who demanded sex. I didn't know this was happening to other women. I heard a lot, but had nothing to say."

From that time forward, she has worked to have something to say to women in and outside of the church, women who struggle against abuse and work for success without compromising their dignity. The work is informal -- a kind word, a patient ear or simple encouragement.

"You could say my [official] work isn't much different than if I was in business," she says. "My goal is to help people shape the church. And for me the church is a constant reminder that Jesus lived among us and commanded us to love and serve one another."

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