By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
Father Joseph T. Murphy takes seriously the line from his ordination rite almost 64 years ago, “Thou art a priest forever.”
Despite his 86 years and having suffered a stroke last year he still celebrates Mass regularly for the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart in Wyncote and the people at St. Luke Parish, Glenside.
Simply put, although officially retired, he does not believe priests should ever completely retire from ministry unless absolutely necessary. His stroke only means he has difficulty distributing holy Communion, but that’s easily done by extraordinary ministers of holy Communion.
Born May 7, 1924, the younger of the two sons of school teachers Ed and Margaret Murphy in Branchdale, Pa., both of his parents died while he was still quite young. Most of his pre-seminary education was as a boarding student, first at St. Aloysius Academy then at St. Mary’s College near Catonsville, Md. He did not enter St. Mary’s with the priesthood in mind, but because it was also a minor seminary, it was there, through example, he realized his vocation.
When he arrived at St. Charles Seminary (from which his late brother, Ed had been ordained in 1936) he was well ahead of his classmates in Latin and Greek, two very important subjects in the seminaries at that time. For this reason he completed his studies at age 22, and was barely 23 when he was ordained by Bishop Hugh Lamb in May 1947.
Because of his proficiency in classical languages he was sent to Fordham University for a master’s degree, where he sometimes filled in for professors in teaching. When it came time for his thesis, as at St. Charles, he wrote it entirely in Greek. Part of the reason he did this, he confessed, is because he really wasn’t a good typist. Because the Greek alphabet is different than the English alphabet he wasn’t expected to type it.
Although Fordham wanted him to stay on as a teacher, he was recalled to Philadelphia for high school ministry. After shorter assignments at St. Thomas More and Cardinal Dougherty high schools he moved on to Roman Catholic, where for the 31 years he taught French, history, Latin and whatever else was needed.
He was 40 years ordained when he moved on to St. Luke Parish in Glenside as an assistant pastor and really loved it. For the next 23 years, even after his official retirement, the 6:30 a.m. Mass was his special love. “I like the early Mass, it didn’t bother me,” he said.
The priesthood was Father Murphy’s sure and certain vocation; tennis was his avocation.
“I played pretty good tennis and won about a hundred trophies over the years,” he said. Just as a recent Philadelphia Cardinal who had a sense of humor was known to have told unsuspecting golf partners his name was “Archie Bishop,” Father Murphy would sometimes use another name. “I took the name ‘Jim Boyce’ and people didn’t know I was a priest,” he said.
As aggressive as he was on the tennis court, his priestly life was somewhat different. Over the years he was asked to become a high school principal and later a pastor, but in each case he refused. In a way, Father Murphy explained, it’s a lot like one of his other avocations, sailing with priest friends. “I never wanted to be skipper, I just wanted to handle the jib,” he said.
He formally retired after his 50th anniversary as a priest, but kept right on with a busy Mass schedule. Until recently it often meant three Masses on a Sunday, starting with early Mass at St. Luke, following up with another for the Sisters in Wyncote and, finally, one at St. James Parish in Elkins Park.
“A priest should stay active and never give up,” he said. “I can’t imagine getting really old and my advice is, ‘Don’t feel sorry for yourself; keep moving.'”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.