Jim O'Leary

Waverly Star

By Jim O'Leary

An e-mail newsletter for and about Waverly people, used with permission in the HLW Herald and on this web site.

  May 3, 2004

Remembering the remarkable life of Sister Ellen Murphy

Sister Margaret Galvin, C.S.J., lives at Bethany Convent in St. Paul, the residence for retired nuns. She recently lost a very good friend there, Sister Ellen Murphy, C.S.J., who died at Easter time, a most appropriate time for her to go back to God.

The following is a eulogy delivered at her funeral by another Sister at Bethany.

Sister Ellen (Agnes) Murphy, C.S.J. (1916-2004).

Ellen Evangeline Murphy was born to Charles Murphy and Helen Armand Murphy on Feb. 16, 1916, in the white frame house that stood on the family farm near Bachelor's Grove, ND, where her grandfather, Lawrence A. Murphy, had homesteaded in 1881.

On March 29, after weeks of blowing snow, her parents took her by horse and buggy and train for her baptism at St. Stephen's Church in Larimore.

The texture of life on the Murphy farm was fertile ground for the growth of little Ellen Evangeline's spirit. Growing up with her sisters, Lucy and Colleen and her brother, Tim, instilled in Ellen's heart a profound sense of what it meant to belong, to be loved, to have a permanent place in the scheme of things. It also left her sensitive heart vulnerable to overwhelming loneliness when she was separated from her loved ones.

Her wise parents did not give in to the many hints and pleas they received to rescue her from boarding school, where she began to develop courage.

Her entrance into religious life on March 19, 1935 was confirmation of her courage, as by that time Ellen understood what it would mean to her to leave home permanently. Yet believing that God called her to religious life, she boarded the Great Northern train alone at Grand Forks on Sept. 7, 1934, committing her life to the loving providence of God.

During the first phase of her life in community, Sister Ellen taught kindergarten children. In August 1937 she was sent to Holy Angels, which, at that time, was out in the country. She wrote of her delight at hearing the cows mooing wile the Sisters were at prayer. Her years of kindergarten teaching included Christ the King School, Saint Columba, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Anne's in Le Sueur, and St. Peter's, newly built in the former pasture beside Holy Angels.

In 1959, a new phase began for Sister Ellen when she was sent to Grand Forks to teach the seventh grade at St. Michael's. This new enterprise demanded, at times, more courage, determination and wit than Sister Ellen felt she had.

Living, once again, in North Dakota and being able to see more of her family was her consolation. And as she was also assigned to teach catechism at Thompson, she had the pleasure of getting to know Father Robert Mullins, whose friendship she cherished over the remainder of her life.

In 1964, she went to St. Margaret's Academy, where she could enjoy the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden nearby. Then, in 1966, she was sent once again to Holy Angels, this time as teacher of English and yearbook advisor.,

Writing had always been part of Sister Ellen's life. From earliest childhood, she wrote stories and poems as naturally as a child learns to walk. Away at boarding school, she wrote letters home every day.

In junior high, she received the gift of a journal from her mother, who was herself a keeper of journals. Ellen began then to write in her journal and was faithful to the habit until her final illness made it impossible.

Later in life, encouraged by some of her professors at Notre Dame, she published a few short stories and a number of poems, but publication was never her purpose. Ellen wrote as one prays, because she could not do otherwise. Her poems have been praised and admired by other writers, by her professors, (one of whom told her, "You have the virtue of poetry,") and by her friends. But her writing is as yet "undiscovered."

In 1969, Sister Ellen was invited to St. Catherine's as writer-in-residence. But midway into the year, Sister Anne Harvey, pioneer in early childhood education at the college, became ill.

When Sister Ellen was asked to take over her responsibilities, it meant a radical change of focus, as well as the need to prepare herself professionally. In obedience, she accepted the change with no half-hearted measures.

She spent the next year and a summer in Chicago, Grand Rapids and Boston, attending classes and observing Montessori programs in a wide variety of settings.

Returning to the college, she designed new courses, met and became fast friends with the state supervisor of early childhood education and was instrumental in the formation of a statewide professional association. In addition, at the age of 53, she learned to drive a car for the first time, in order to have the mobility to supervise her students in the field.

Study and learning had been a joy to Ellen all her life. Summertime, for most sisters, was an annual affair of classes at St. Catherine's. Not every Sister could enjoy this time as much as Ellen did, for whom it was like a vacation.

And when she was sent to the University of Notre Dame to pursue an master of arts in English, it was pure delight for her. As time went on and she was assigned new responsibilities, she was also given further opportunities for study and travel. Receiving these as gifts beyond her deserving, Sister Ellen applied herself with imagination and enterprise, working hard to give back more than she had received.

The sum of Sister Ellen's life is more than her work in education, more even than her writing. The quality of her spirit is what one remembers as defining the woman.

From earliest infancy, she learned to believe in a good God, a Father so benevolent that he would give his only Son to save his children from sin. With all her heart, she loved her heavenly Father.

Upon entering religious life, she understood her vocation as a call to be a bride of Christ, and for the rest of her life she was sustained and nourished by love for Jesus. She loved Our Lady, and no day passed in which she did not pray the Rosary. Finally, she loved and accepted the Cross, the great and truly necessary sign of salvation.

Yet, for all this, Sister Ellen's faith was quiet and deep. From her mother she learned independence, courage and determination. But in religious life, Sister Ellen often had to give up some of her hard-won independence in favor of obedience, though she never lacked courage or determination.

No one outside herself would know the cost to her of the obedience she vowed, and to which she was faithful all her life. But Ellen knew well the truth spoken by Leon Bloy:

"We cannot ever know whether this or that which grieves us is not the secret principle of later joy." From her father, Sister Ellen had her Irish wit and her compassion.

Her gentle wit which never called attention to itself sparkled in her blue eyes and bubbled up between the occasional rocks in the stream of everyday life. She charmed friends and colleagues with those sudden witticisms. One could laugh and know that "all will be well."

Sister Ellen died at Bethany Convent in the early hours of the morning of Friday, April 16th. She is survived by her sister-in-law Helen Murphy, and many nieces and nephews. She whose spirit never ceased to long for home, can say at last, "I am home!" May the angels lead her into Paradise and may all her dear ones come out to meet her!

In 1966, Sister Ellen sent me a postcard on her birthday which simply said "50 Years of Irish Independence."

Most recently, she sent me an Easter poem she had written from her retirement at Bethany Convent:

Easter Tide

She took spring's inventory step by step, noting the mystery's temporal evidence: fresh tufts of green around the rocks, between old cracks in worn cement, ant colonies, the berm with violets rampant.

Across the lawns the short-stemmed, pink-white clover spread its scent, toned down the arrant dandelions' pungent gold.

Along the walk the trees that cast those lace-like shadow-clusters from their leafy boughs.

In the thick bush of bridal-wreath small birds took wing and landed on the wall, hopped, chirped, then stopped to listen wary of all that moved.

Near a lilac hedge she rested, breathed its innocent perfume, turned her weathered face to where a vireo sang, and thought how simply every outward sign revealed its grace.

Earth's bond with Heaven seemed so commonplace, so humble, so divine. ‘Oh, never mind the mix of shabby space, untidy paths, polluted river, land and air,' she told herself.

‘One Day from Love's pristine design all things will be made new for humankind.'

(Once Sister Ellen told me a lady at a bus stop came up to her and said,

"Sister, will you say hello to God for me?"

So, please, Sister Ellen Murphy, say hello to God for all of us now.)

For previous issues of the Waverly Star, see the web site at www.herald-journal.com/waverlystar.


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