Obituary: Sister A. Catherine Murphy, former President of the Sisters of St. Joseph

On Dec. 28, 2009 hundreds gathered to celebrate the funeral of Sister A. Catherine Murphy -- Sister Flavia. They came from near and far: Sisters of St. Joseph and former sisters, family, former students, friends, colleagues, present and past, young and old. Each knew sister in a different way, joined together to honor her and to thank God for the particular way she touched their lives.

The funeral Mass was celebrated at Holy Family Chapel at the Motherhouse in Brighton on Dec. 29, 2009.

Sister Catherine died on Christmas Eve when the whole Christian world was waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Sister Catherine didn’t have to wait this year -- we pray that she has received her reward on Christmas Eve and is now rejoicing in the full experience of our loving God. The concept of “covenant” was central to Sister’s whole being. At her wake service, a passage was proclaimed from the prophet, Jeremiah, “I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you, says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 29:10-14) Sister Catherine Murphy lived this covenant every day: God’s call, and her unquestioning response. God was found by Catherine on Christmas Eve.

Anna Catherine Murphy was born on March 22, 1917, the second of the four children born to Thomas and Elizabeth Dalton Murphy. The family lived in Winchester, where Catherine attended St. Mary School. In the third grade she was asked what she wanted to be, and she knew then that she wanted to be a sister -- a missionary. However, responding to her father’s desire that she stay closer to home, she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston on Sept. 8, 1935. On March 19, 1936, she received the habit and became known as Sister Mary Flavia.

One of her earliest missions was at St. Agnes, Arlington, where she taught in the junior high school for six years. Recently Catherine commented on the “gracious hospitality” that was present at St. Agnes Convent. Obviously this quality of gracious hospitality was strongly present in Catherine, as well, because she exemplified it throughout her entire life!

In 1954 Catherine embarked on a new adventure when she was assigned to be the founding Principal at the newly established Fontbonne Academy. This was one of Catherine’s favorite ministries. She referred to it as an extraordinary ministry and called herself and the other sisters who founded Fontbonne Academy with her as pioneers. We can only imagine the work and the risk involved in establishing a brand new school. Needless to say, those chosen to staff such a venture were carefully selected to assure the success of the undertaking. And successful it was, as a few years ago, in 2004, Catherine was present at the school to help celebrate Fontbonne’s 50th anniversary!

After eight years at Fontbonne, she was assigned to study at Catholic University of America, where she earned an undergraduate and a Master’s Degree in Theology. Catherine’s two years at Catholic University had a profound influence upon her life. The Second Vatican Council was actually in process at that time, and she was surrounded by outstanding theologians like Kung, Schillebeeckx, and Rahner. When she returned to Regis as Academic Dean, college campuses everywhere were centers for study, trying to absorb the impact of the teachings of the council. Change was in the air, and all through the mid to late 1960s Catherine was steeped in this new theology and shared it with others.

During these years, religious congregations throughout the world were caught up in implementing the calls of Vatican II and the Sisters of St. Joseph were part of this. Recently Sister Catherine commented that although this was her most difficult and challenging time, she really loved those years. She felt that the greatest positive change was the ability sisters were given to dialogue with each other and to make choices about the way they live. By 1971 all these threads were coming together and it was time for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston to elect a new leadership team. This was the election that called forth Sister Catherine Murphy as the new -- and first -- President of the Congregation.

Her years in leadership were a transformative time for the congregation. Along with the external renewal of clothing and living, there was a deep interior renewal which transformed the prayer life of the congregation. Catherine’s covenant with God influenced the many decisions she was required to make, and Maxim 84 was often a guide for those decisions. (The Maxims of the Little Institute, is a group of 100 short sayings. They are one of the founding documents of the Sisters of St. Joseph.) Maxim 84 says, “Never go ahead of grace by an imprudent eagerness, but quietly await its movements, and, when it comes to you go along with it with great gentleness, humility, fidelity, and courage.”

Sister knew that God would always be there for her, and God was. Even through her most recent illness and brief stay at Bethany, it was clear that she quietly awaited the movements of grace, and followed it with great gentleness, humility, fidelity, and courage.

Her wisdom, grace, and insight were a great gift to all who knew her and for that we are grateful. Catherine’s death is a great loss. The Sisters of St. Joseph, the Church of Boston, her family, friends, former students, and colleagues will miss her but will also rejoice with her that the covenant is now fulfilled. She is with her loving God, and God is with her.

Sister was buried in St. Patrick Cemetery, Natick.

Sister Helen Sullivan, CSJ, is a member of the leadership team of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston; The Pilot staff also contributed to this article.