Father James Michael Murray
Born: Schenectady, New York, October 27, 1926
Professed: January 1, 1987
Ordained: June 5, 1993
Died: October 31, 2011
We request your prayers for our deceased confrere, Father James Michael Murray, who having patiently endured the ravages of untreatable cancer for several months, died peacefully in the abbey infirmary the morning of October 31, 2011, the abbot at his side.
Fr. James was born October 27, 1926, in Schenectady, New York, the eldest of four sons of Michael and Beatrice (Audet) Murray. He attended local schools, graduating from Mont Pleasant High School, Schenectady, in 1944. He then enrolled at Union College, Schenectady, but shortly thereafter was inducted into the United States Army. After serving for a year as an Army personnel clerk in Europe, he received an honorable discharge and resumed studies at Union College, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in literature in 1950.
In 1955 Fr. James married (Judith) Michele Freedman. They had four children: David of St. Louis, Missouri; Jonathon of Shaker Heights, Ohio; Sarah of Alameda, California; and Matthew of the Bronx, New York. Mrs. Murray, a highly regarded poet and reviewer of poetry for numerous publications, died of cancer in 1974, leaving Fr. James to raise their four children, then ranging in age from eighteen to eight, as a single father.
In the early 1950s Fr. James worked in banking. He then held various major administrative positions in the area of personnel for, successively, the Bureau of Public Roads of the Department of Commerce, Washington, D.C.; the central personnel office of the District of Columbia; and the District’s Department of Sanitary Engineering.
In 1969, a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., when racial tensions were at their height in the District of Columbia and across the nation, Fr. James was hired to serve as Personnel Director of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, the first civilian ever to hold that post. In that capacity he used highly innovative techniques to recruit a total of almost 2,000 additional officers for the force, greatly increasing the number of African American and other minority members, and adding as well a good proportion of Ivy League graduates and women. He also was instrumental in securing female officers, whose duties hitherto had been both limited and confined to matters concerning women and children, full police responsibilities. Although he had never been a police officer himself, he was soon promoted to the rank of Assistant Chief of Police for Administrative Services.
In 1974 Fr. James became Evaluation Manager of the U.S. Civil Service Commission in Washington, heading a staff that oversaw the application of federal personnel policies in at least half of the extant federal departments and agencies. He retired in 1979 to devote himself more fully to the raising of his family. Decades later he was still fondly remembered by many in the nation’s capital.
An inner spiritual journey culminated in his entering St. Bede Abbey in 1985. He professed his first vows January 1, 1987. In 1989 he began studies for the priesthood at Saint Meinrad School of Theology, from which he received Master of Arts and Master of Divinity degrees in 1993. He was ordained June 5 of that year.
Beside doing chaplain’s work at the local Catholic hospital, for several years Fr. James taught the course in marriage to St. Bede Academy seniors and for two decades served as Director of Oblates for the abbey. Increasingly, however, his time and energies were devoted to administering the sacrament of reconciliation and giving spiritual direction.
Much of Fr. James’ life story is recounted in a 1999 memoir written by his youngest son, Matthew, entitled The Father and the Son.
As Abbot Philip characterized him in his funeral homily, Fr. James was a man simply overwhelmed with “the extravagance of God’s love” and a channel of that love for the scores of priests, religious, and lay people who attended retreats that he gave or sought him out for confession and spiritual direction. He continued his pastoral ministry even while confined to our infirmary and in hospice care; so great was the number of his visitors from outside the abbey that Abbot Philip had to personally schedule visits, limiting them so as to prevent Fr. James from becoming overtaxed and overtired.
Possessed of a gentle but determined disposition, Fr. James could sometimes be oblivious to people and happenings around him as he followed his unyielding daily routine. What others sometimes perceived as a lack of consideration was for him a matter of self-discipline. A man of Spartan habits, he kept his windows open virtually every night, even during the coldest spells of winter, and each morning rose at 3:00, began the lectio with which his entire day was punctuated, read the Chicago Tribune, and prayed the first of his rosaries for the day.
A voracious reader, he always had several books “going” at the same time: books on theology and spirituality (notably books on Mary); books on government and politics; books on current events in the Church, the nation, and the world. He was also a discriminating reader of works of fiction and poetry and was a lover of the arts in general.
He was keenly attuned to the weather and, an Easterner at heart, positively reveled in those frosty days with slate gray skies celebrated by the poet Elinor Wylie. It was a joke among his children that their father loved weather, period.
Fierce in his love of God and the Mother of God, Fr. James was firm but tenderhearted, understanding, and compassionate in dealing with those who came to him for spiritual help. Louis Evely once defined a saint as “someone who believes that God loves him.” Fr. James seemed to have a gift for awakening or deepening in each person who came to him an awareness of God’s love for that person in his or her brokenness. He himself was highly sensitive to personal criticism, a fact unbeknown even to many of his confreres because he unfailingly maintained an even-tempered and cheerful exterior. He well knew what it is to suffer in silence and could therefore well understand the private agonies of those to whom he ministered.
Fr. James’ normal speaking voice was something akin to a hoarse whisper, and the pace of his speech, especially when he wished to emphasize a point, was insistent. A microphone only amplified the unintelligibility of much of what he said in homilies. But that same voice brought consolation and comfort to untold souls in private converse. In his final days, it gave way almost entirely, so that he was barely audible.
Three days before his death, however, he managed to summon it forth to ask the monk who was attending him, “What’s next?” Mistakenly thinking that he was confused about the time of day, his confrere replied, “Supper.” Fr. James quickly corrected the misunderstanding by sweeping his hand down the length of his emaciated body saying, “No, I mean with this, the cancer. What does the Lord have in mind for me? What does he want me to do? I’m ready for anything.” And with that he began to pray aloud for forgiveness for any sins of pride he had committed, the tears that so often accompanied his prayer, both private and public, streaming down his cheeks, one hand on his heart, the other firmly grasping that of his brother monk. In this way he made his own, as it were, the opening and closing sentences of one of his wife’s poems, a favorite of his, written when she herself was dying of cancer: “My sentence has introduced me to the language of mutes / who find themselves sprinkled like dull pebbles / across the stony north of their lives. Those who know their end lose the sounds of pride.”
Beside his wife, Fr. James was preceded in death by his parents and brothers. He is survived by his monastic community, his children and their spouses, and four grandchildren. We offer our gratitude for the suffrages that you will offer for Fr. James, and we promise faithful remembrance of your deceased.
Abbot Philip Davey, OSB and community