Bishop Murphy, advocate for justice, dies at age 66

Catholic vicar backed ordination of women

September 03, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Bishop Philip Francis "Frank" Murphy, a native son of Cumberland who was an outspoken advocate for the poor, a champion of social justice and among a handful of Roman Catholic bishops to call for women's ordination, died yesterday of cancer at Mercy Medical Center.

Bishop Murphy, 66, died shortly before 8 a.m. with his family at his bedside.

"With the Archdiocese of Baltimore, I mourn the passing of a friend of so many years, a priest whose heart brimmed with compassion, a bishop who gave so much of himself in service to God's people throughout the Archdiocese and most especially to those in Western Maryland," said Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of the Baltimore archdiocese.

Bishop Murphy never lost optimism during his eight-month illness. "I have not been afraid, and I have not dwelt negatively on this," he said in June. "I don't believe that I'm dying although I know that I have a cancer that's not going to be taken away. It can be slowed down, curtailed, diminished, but it's not going to be denied."

Ultimately, the end came quickly. Bishop Murphy was admitted to Mercy Medical Center last week to have fluid removed from the pleural cavity, and tests revealed that tumors had regrown on his liver and the cancer had spread to his brain and spine.

On Tuesday morning, Bishop Murphy summoned Cardinal Keeler to his hospital bed. "It was in a sense a farewell," Cardinal Keeler said. "I told him that the suffering Jesus on the cross was with him. And then I asked him if there were anything else I could do.

"He just said, `Prayers, prayers, prayers.' "

Bishop Murphy's death was met with particular sadness by those whose causes he espoused: advocates for the poor and those with AIDS, opponents of war and militarism and those supporting women priests.

"To us, he just represented the entire justice agenda in the church," said Andrea Johnson, executive director of the Women's Ordination Conference. "I just hope somebody will step into the breach and take on that leadership role."

James E. Upchurch Jr., president of Interfaith Housing of Western Maryland, which Bishop Murphy co-founded in 1989, recalls that the organization started with little more than the churchman's vision.

"We had no assets, we had no staff, we had no land, nothing," he said. Today, the organization has built or rehabilitated more than 450 housing units worth more than $35 million.

"I have memories of a man -- who knows nothing of hammering nails -- hammering nails with a welfare mom in Taneytown in Carroll County," he said. "He regarded everybody else as being important."

Bishop Murphy was born in 1933 in Cumberland. He attended St. Mary's School there and St. Charles College in Catonsville.

He received a bachelor's degree in 1955 from St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore. He was then selected to study at the North American College in Rome, the training ground for many of the church's leaders. He set sail from New York harbor aboard the Andrea Doria that same year.

Bishop Murphy was ordained in December 1958. The next year, he received a license in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

He returned to Baltimore, where he was assigned to St. Bernardine parish in West Baltimore. He also served as vocation director at Mount St. Joseph High School.

He returned to Rome in 1961, serving as vice rector at North American College.

Four years later, Bishop Murphy was made a monsignor and was appointed secretary to Cardinal Lawrence Shehan, then head of the Baltimore archdiocese, whom he helped implement changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council. Bishop Murphy was Cardinal Shehan's closest confidant.

Before Cardinal Shehan died in 1984, he selected Bishop Murphy to deliver his eulogy.

"I wish a simple funeral without any fuss, and I want you to give the homily -- but don't exaggerate!" Bishop Murphy quoted Cardinal Shehan during the funeral Mass.

Bishop Murphy was ordained auxiliary bishop Feb. 29, 1976, and was named vicar of the western portion of the archdiocese. He served on the board of Baltimore's Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies and the Interfaith Alliance, a national organization of Christian and Jewish leaders.

As bishop, he earned his greatest notice, and some notoriety, for his stand against the nuclear arms race and his support of women's ordination.

During a 1980 meeting of the Catholic bishops' conference, Bishop Murphy called for a study of the church's teaching regarding nuclear weapons and the morality of war. That led to a noteworthy bishops' pastoral letter questioning whether a just war could be waged in the nuclear age.

Bishop Murphy served on the National Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Women in the church from 1978 to 1990. In September 1992, he caused a stir when he stated in an article he wrote for Commonweal, a Catholic publication, that he favored the ordination of women.

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