Servant of God Mother Margaret Mary Healy Murphy: Educator and Civil Rights Pioneer

The 19th-century Irish immigrant founded the first Catholic order for women religious in the Lone Star State and braved racial bigotry to open Texas’ first Catholic school for Black Americans.

The founder of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate is shown in archival images (in the black-and-white photo, she is shown sitting without a veil) and in a stained-glass window at St. Peter the Apostle Church in Pascagoula, Mississippi.
The founder of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate is shown in archival images (in the black-and-white photo, she is shown sitting without a veil) and in a stained-glass window at St. Peter the Apostle Church in Pascagoula, Mississippi. (photo: Courtesy of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate)

SAN ANTONIO — When Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio addressed his fellow bishops during their annual assembly in November to back the advancement of the cause for beatification and canonization of Mother Margaret Mary Healy Murphy, he hoped to spark interest in her legacy as the founder of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate, a religious order of women that began educating African American children in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation. 

But he did not expect that three other U.S. bishops would stand up during the meeting to echo his support for the advancement of her cause. 

“The testimonies were long and alive,” said Archbishop García-Siller, who announced his intention to formally open the diocesan phase of the investigation on June 28.

“The three bishops — one Anglo, one Black and one Hispanic — were touched by her. Two said they owed their vocation to the priesthood to her” and the spirituality of the order she founded.

Reflecting on the intertwined legacy of the foundress and her religious order, the archbishop told the Register that a “saint is not just an individual. A saint is an instrument, and the fruits” of his or her ministry provide “proof” of their sanctity. 

A 19th-century Irish immigrant who displayed heroic virtue as she served the needy during a tumultuous period of war and civil strife, Mother Margaret Mary’s strikingly American story reads like a mash-up of Edna Ferber’s Giant and Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. She was responsible for starting the first Catholic religious order for women and the first Catholic school for Black children in Texas, braving deep racial animus in the process. 

“At our time in history, we believe it is important to present somebody who can be a model,” Holy Spirit Sister Geraldine Klein, general superior of the order, told the Register.

Mother Margaret Mary’s life shows “what can happen when we stop looking at people because of their skin color, stop thinking about what we can get for ourselves,” and see what we can do for the neediest. 

Born in 1833 in County Kerry, Ireland, Margaret Mary arrived in the United States in 1845. Members of the Healy family were among the first wave of Irish families to flee the devastation wrought by the potato famine, and they would face many more headwinds in their adopted land, where religious discrimination against Irish Catholics was deeply entrenched. 

Margaret Mary and her father, a doctor, landed in Virginia, but he died soon after, and she later settled with other family members in Mexico, where they operated a hotel during the Mexican-American War. 

“While Margaret was working at the hotel, she met her future husband, John Bernard Murphy, a political reporter and merchant” from County Cork, noted Cecilia Gutierrez Venable, an archivist and historian for the order who has studied Mother Margaret Mary’s life and times. 

In 1849, after the young woman turned 16, she married Murphy, who would later become the mayor of Corpus Christi, Texas.

Early in their marriage, said Venable, Margaret Mary bought a small ranch near Nuecestown, Texas, where Comanches and Mexican bandits posed an ongoing danger.

Later, the couple moved to Corpus Christi. They rose to prominence in the Lone Star State as Murphy became a successful lawyer and Margaret Mary burnished her reputation as a hostess and civic leader. 

But the tumult of civil war upended this comfortable interlude. 

A friend wrote that when Margaret Mary “saw the ravages of the Civil War, her home severely broken, her piano battered, her furniture and silverware taken or destroyed, she was dismayed. 

“But far from seeking sympathy or indulging in self-pity, she immediately helped the ranch hands by personal service. She milked cows, carried the milk pails and distributed the dairy products to the stricken victims of war ...” and opened a small clinic and soup kitchen on her property. The Murphys could not have their own children, but they took responsibility for a number of orphaned children and adopted two girls.

During a yellow fever epidemic, a dying patient entrusted her child to the care of Margaret Mary, who had helped the local pastor nurse many of the sick. 

The Murphys later adopted that child, Minnie Delaney, as well as another child named Lizzie, sending both to a New York boarding school run by the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur. 

After they completed their education, both daughters joined the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament Sisters. 

John Murphy’s death in 1884 left his widow with a sizable fortune, and she channeled a portion of the funds into her work for the sick, operating a tuberculosis hospital in Corpus Christi. 

After a few years, she moved to San Antonio and opened a school and parish church for Black families.

The plan gained traction in 1887, after the U.S. bishops, during their Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, had called for Catholics to provide social and economic uplift to African Americans. Initially, the widow had resisted the call because she had already tried once to open a Catholic school for Black children in Temple, Texas, but had not succeeded. 

Then a seemingly chance encounter with a young child swept aside her doubts. As she left morning Mass one day, a Black child came up, grabbing her by the skirt. 

“She looked straight into his eyes” and understood what she must undertake, recalled Sister Geraldine.

“As Margaret Mary told her friend, ‘This is it. I can’t resist any more. This is what God wants me to do.’”

“She felt education would raise them up, and that is what we have seen in our own work,” said Sister Geraldine.

Additional struggles followed, as Margaret Mary failed in her first attempt to open a Catholic school and parish for African Americans.

She moved near San Antonio, and tried again, succeeding in the end. But she also struggled to keep her new institution staffed with competent Catholic teachers and determined that a new religious order established with the express mission of educating people of color was needed. 

In 1893, with the support and approval of Bishop John Neraz, she founded the Sisters of the Holy Ghost, now known as the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate. The work remained difficult and often stirred contention. And she was forced to travel back to Ireland on a regular basis to recruit additional women for her order. But when the foundress died in 1907, her budding religious order had 15 sisters, two postulants and three missions. 

Over time, the order established schools in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi and a more temporary presence in Alabama and upstate New York.

Today, said Sister Geraldine, the order’s numbers have dwindled, and its schools are mostly shuttered. Yet the congregation continues “manifesting the ‘compassion of Jesus to the poor’ in the United States and Zambia.” And as Mother Margaret Mary’s cause moves to a new stage of review in Rome, her supporters hope that the testimony of those who witnessed her sanctity will speed their efforts, while reminding the Church of the transformative power of an authentic Catholic education, especially for the neediest children.

Indeed, more than a half-century after Ralph McCloud, director of the Campaign for Human Development at the USCCB, graduated from one of the order’s schools in Fort Worth, Texas, he still celebrates the extraordinary impact it had on his faith journey and professional life. 

“The sisters had the tenacity, the courage, the faith and the drive” to help their students believe they could overcome the obstacles before them and “achieve success,” McCloud told the Register. “I became Catholic as a result of that school,” added McCloud, now 68, as he recalled the beloved urban school that served the local Black community, educated his six siblings, and charged “minimal tuition.” 

“The school itself prepared young people for life by instilling strong faith values,” especially through the example of the sisters, who were there at a time of anti-Catholicism and racism, “when educating Black people wasn’t popular,” he said. 

At the very heart of this remarkable educational enterprise was the foundress herself. 

“Her spirit,” said McCloud, “pervaded the school and the community.”