Remembering Bishop George Murry — My Mentor, Boss and Friend

Bishop Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, lost his fight with leukemia Friday morning.

ABOVE: Official portrait of Bishop George Murry. INSET BELOW: Bishop Murry’s coat of arms.
ABOVE: Official portrait of Bishop George Murry. INSET BELOW: Bishop Murry’s coat of arms. (photo: Multiple)

I remember when Jesuit Father George Murry first arrived at the University of Detroit Mercy. He had a leadership style that was strong yet warm, and his laughter could be heard down the hall. He was a tall and imposing figure and was, according to campus rumors, likely to be named president of some Jesuit university in the future. He loved God, he loved the Catholic Church with its rich traditions and art, and he loved the field of education.

When then-Father Murry came to UDM as Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs in 1994, I was working as a secretary in the Department of Academic Affairs, and I was assigned to be his assistant. We met for the first time in an elevator, and he quickly became one of my favorite people. It seemed that in those days — especially in the last two months before his appointment as bishop was finalized — my job often consisted of making travel reservations, then canceling them. He couldn’t attend a conference in which he’d planned to participate. Instead, he told me, he would be flying to visit another bishop, or flying to Washington, D.C., where he would stay at the home of the apostolic pro-nuncio. He was not permitted to tell university staff that he was being considered for a different line of church work, as a member of the hierarchy instead of an educational leader.

My assignment working with Bishop Murry lasted only five months, but it impacted me greatly. Of course, there were the unique opportunities presented when he was named to the episcopacy: When Pope John Paul II called on Father Murry to be an auxiliary bishop in Chicago, it fell to me to help with some of the arrangements for his send-off in Detroit, to work with the artist who was designing his episcopal coat of arms, and to build a guest list for his welcome reception in Chicago. I was invited to the ordination ceremony at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago, where I watched as the apostolic pro-nuncio Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan celebrated the liturgy and read a special message from the Holy Father, and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin consecrated three bishops for the Archdiocese of Chicago: Bishop George Murry; Bishop Gerald Kicanas, then rector of Mundelein Seminary; and the late Bishop Edwin Conway. For the next three years, Bishop Murry served the people on Chicago’s south side.

Then in 1998, my husband and I flew to the Virgin Islands to watch proudly as Bishop Murry was officially installed as coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, working alongside Bishop Elliott Thomas. I've often reflected on that experience: The cathedral was simple (the confessional featured a hanging drapery and two folding chairs), but the faith of the people was strong. Not shy about raising their voices as are many Catholics on the mainland, the congregation sang boldly. Later, at the diocese’s official “welcome” luncheon, dignitaries seated at the head table included Bishop Sean O’Malley of Boston, who had formerly served there in the Virgin Islands.

But more than the chance to rub shoulders with the ecclesiastical elite, I enjoyed the day-to-day conversations with my boss, his energy and his openness to sharing his vision for Catholic higher education. Father Murry loved the Catholic Church. He didn’t appreciate the modernized architecture which had become commonplace in the years following the Second Vatican Council. “The Church has been a repository of great beauty,” he told me in the office one day. He hoped that that the Church’s appreciation for beauty would continue into the future. He loved classical art and architecture, stained glass windows and the great sculptures and paintings of the medieval masters, which glorified God in a unique way.

As a black Jesuit moving to a new city and living on campus in community with white priests, Father Murry faced some unique challenges — for example, where to get a haircut? I helped to find an employee from the IT department who could answer that question.

And friends? Father Murry collected friends everywhere he went. He’d served previously as president of Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C., and he kept in touch with friends he’d made at that school and throughout the nation’s capital. He had earned an M.Div. from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkley, California, and a Ph.D. in American Cultural History from George Washington University in D.C., and he taught theology for a time at Georgetown University. Often when his phone rang, it would be friends from those institutions calling with a question or a funny story. He was loved, too, at Detroit Mercy, and he especially enjoyed hosting a party in his office and drawing crowds of faculty and staff to his office at the end of the day for refreshments and conversation.

At the university, Father Murry sought to preserve a strong Catholic identity. He was not happy when modern-day “innovations” were inserted into a Sunday evening campus liturgy, and he called on the carpet the administrator who had permitted it, demanding that the rubrics be respected and adhered to. When one of his fellow Jesuits presented an idea in class that he considered unorthodox, Father Murry called him into his office, and the two of them spent an afternoon behind closed doors, debating the appropriate role of Catholic higher education.


A Childhood Faith

Bishop Murry’s propensity for faith-sharing had its origins early in childhood. He was born into a family of Methodists, but his parents enrolled him in St. Bartholomew Catholic School in Camden, New Jersey, when he was in third grade. The family began to attend both the Methodist church and the Sunday morning children’s Mass at the Catholic church; but as little George learned more about the Catholic faith in school, he became interested in becoming officially Catholic. In an interview with the Catholic Star Herald, Murry said, “I was in an atmosphere that was entirely Catholic, and I grew in my appreciation of the faith, as much as a kid can. I was fascinated by the Catholic Church. I came to believe it was where I belonged. It was my home.”

When he was 9 years old, on Sept. 13, 1958, George Murry was baptized into the Catholic faith. His younger brother Anthony later followed his example. Some time after that his parents, Viola and George Vance Murry, also became Catholic.

Murry served as an altar server at St. Bartholomew Parish, and he stayed after school to help the sisters. He always planned to become a priest, and he told anyone who asked that he would be entering seminary. Even more ambitiously, when asked by an associate pastor what he was going to do when he grew up, young George had a ready answer: “I'm going to be the pope!”

That was only a childhood dream — and indeed, Bishop Murry didn’t live long enough to accede to the papacy. His achievements, though — both in education and in the clerical state — were substantial. At the schools where he’d led, he advocated for a strong Catholic education, resisting efforts at watering down the Church’s consistent teachings to make them more palatable in society. As a bishop in Chicago, in the Virgin Islands, and since 2007 in Youngstown, Bishop Murry was a strong and a well-regarded teacher and spiritual leader.

Bishop Murry died June 5 at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital after a three-year battle with leukemia. He will be greatly missed.