Thanks to socially aware priests at Ithaca’s Immaculate Conception Parish during the turbulent 1960s, Father Tim Murphy, GHM, got a clear message about how he should live out his faith: get involved.
"I was a regular altar server, hearing about the needs of the time with social issues, war and poverty. … They (our priests) exposed us to a broader world, that being Catholic is not just to go to church," Father Murphy recalled.
Spurred on by those exhortations, he traveled to rural southern Georgia for a one-year volunteer stint right out of college — and ended up devoting his life to missionary service in the Deep South.
This year Father Murphy, 58, celebrated his 20th year as a priest of the Glenmary Home Missioners order. The bulk of that time has been spent in Pontotoc, a small city in northeast Mississippi where he’s pastor of the Glenmary-founded St. Christopher Mission. He also serves as sacramental minister at St. Luke the Evangelist Mission, 35 miles away.
Other duties in Father Murphy’s expansive ministry include hospice chaplain, prison chaplain, individual and family therapist with Catholic Charities, co-convener of the Glenmary Commission on Justice, Habitat for Humanity board member, and director of Camp Glenmary, which annually offers programs for children from low-income families as well as those representing the state’s tiny Catholic population.
In his pastorate, Father Murphy ministers to numerous immigrant Mexican Catholic families working for low wages at nearby farms and furniture plants. On Sundays he offers an English Mass as well as a Spanish Mass that often numbers at least 200.
He said that black/white race relations — often a sore spot in Mississippi’s history — have improved significantly during his time there but added that "there’s a lot that still needs to be addressed, and that’s why we need the presence of the church." He also encounters great need in his longtime chaplaincy at Mississippi State Penitentiary, the state’s only maximum-security facility. Father Murphy makes the two-hour trip there every two weeks and is the only Catholic priest who ministers to death-row prisoners.
"It’s a ministry of presence," he said. "Most of the inmates are not Catholic, but it’s very meaningful to a lot of these guys."
Father Murphy said less than 3 percent of area residents are Catholic — a typical setting for the Glenmary order, which focuses its ministry on small-town and rural parts of the United States where Catholic presence is scant and many are unchurched. He observed that Glenmary is generally welcomed in Pontotoc because its top priority is helping people of all races and religions.
"We’re not here just to be the Catholic pastors. You have to be out in the larger community," he stated. "Person-to-person and personal example are often what speak the loudest."
He comes home for two weeks every summer — his father, John, is a daily-Mass attendee at Immaculate Conception — and combines vacation with Glenmary fundraising appeals at diocesan churches. In August 2013 he appeared at St. Theodore in Gates and Our Mother of Sorrows in Greece. "The churches have been amazingly generous," he said.
Father Murphy is a 1969 graduate of Immaculate Conception School. After graduating from Ithaca High School in 1973 and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in education, he committed to a year with Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) in south Georgia. He stayed on for several years in the area, obtaining legal aid for the poor.
He began seminary in December 1985 at Washington (D.C.) Theological Union and completed studies in 1990, also earning a master’s degree in counseling that year from Loyola University in Baltimore. He came to Mississippi in 1992, one year before his priestly ordination, and remains there today.
He acknowledged being busy in his daily duties, but said his pace isn’t more grueling than any other priest and certainly not as daunting as that of area migrants toiling in the fields. Rather, he said he’s simply doing what all Catholics are called to do.
"We’ve got to be part of that mission in some way — not in a grandiose way, but in some way. It’s so easy to get polarized or immobilized," Father Murphy commented, noting the gratification he feels when observing college volunteers at Camp Glenmary each year: "If you spend a week or two or three with an open mind and heart, it’s going to influence you in some way. It will make you a different person if you’re open to that."
Just like a young Tim Murphy left himself open to becoming a different person some 35 years ago.
"I’m very grateful for the years I’ve been here; I really do find it to be holy ground. I had no idea in 1977 and 1978 I was going to be here this long. Looking back, I thank God. It makes sense — otherwise it would be a long time to be doing this and not having it make sense," he said with a laugh.