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“Then they scoffed, He’s just the carpenter’s son.”
Matthew Chapter 13, Verse 55
If only those people knew what we know now.
Christmas is a celebration of a promise made and of a promise kept by God Almighty when He sent down His only Son.
It’s a time to be grateful not for what you get, but for what you already have.
The congregation of St. Rose Church has a wonderful old treasure near and dear to their hearts, which brings much happiness and cheer even on the darkest of days in the darkest of times.
I’m not talking about that beautiful church filled with stain glass windows. I’m talking about a 90-year-old carpenter known to everyone as Father Murray, who lights up your life just by showing up. Father’s carpentry skills were developed late in life, and are now a passion where he makes beautiful furniture to be raffled at charity events. He told me that he spends so much time on each piece as he shapes and crafts it that he falls in love with his creation. It’s hard to give it up when it’s done.
I got to sit down to talk with Father Murray for two hours last Saturday.
The first thing you will notice about Father Murray is his constant smile and the way he cracks almost a joke a minute. The second is a mind as sharp as a tack. He can remember names and stories that date almost back to his birth.
Father was born in 1921 and raised in Lowell, Mass. with an adopted brother and a sister by a quiet Irish father who worked as a tinsmith. His Irish mother was outgoing and the “comedian” in the family. She worked in a cotton mill after graduating from the eighth grade.
Father Murray told me that he was never really a scholar as a youth. Instead, he loved to work with his hands and it showed in his education. He was in his second year of public high school when a Catholic sister named Eileen required his class to write a five-page paper. He printed his report because he didn’t know how to write cursive. Sister Eileen was stunned that he had gotten as far in school as he had while knowing so little. However, she did more than just criticize. She worked with him at night to bring him up to academic speed. She later got him transferred to a Catholic high school, where he had to start all over again as a freshman. It took him six years to get out of high school.
When Father Murray wasn’t in school, he worked. This was the Great Depression, when people were happy and grateful for any job.
He was delivering some 250 newspapers each day at the age of 13 for the Lowell Courier Citizen. He also worked in their mailroom, and in a depression era work program called the WPA, where he cleaned schoolrooms at night for $30 a month.
Father first became aware of Washington County in 1943 when he came to a seminary located then at St. Rose to study to be a priest. He fell in love with the people and didn’t want to leave when he was ordained. But it wasn’t meant to be, and he only got to come back as a parish priest to his beloved St. Rose for a few years in the 1980’s and then much later in the late 1990’s. He’s been here ever since.
Father Murray served in several churches over his decades away from St. Rose. Some of the locations were far from ideal, where drug and alcohol abuse ran rampant. The police had to guard his parishioner’s cars to prevent break-ins during Mass at one of his churches. Another time he had to jump out of the way of a car to prevent being run down by a man that later murdered a woman.
Not very pleasant places to be sure.
But Father Murray said, “No matter where you go you have to learn to like it,” and through it all he kept smiling and kept his faith.
He told me many stories related to the people he met when he served as a chaplain to the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Some were famous and most were not, but many had life threatening illnesses. Many were friendly and thankful to see him when he made his rounds. He had tons of funny stories to tell from these patients that left me rolling. But at the same time, most were scared and some very angry with God. Those that were angry would sometimes be abusive when he tried to minister to them.
Father Murray said you never answer any abuse with abuse. If someone talks bad to you, shoves you, or even smacks your face you should turn the other cheek and answer with “Thank you very much.”
Father Murray said most abusive people want you to argue with them. They want to fight. If you answer with “Thank you very much” and leave, they will frequently think about what they said or did and come back to you later to apologize. I could tell that it wasn’t the apology he wanted. He has broad shoulders. He wanted the chance to bring them back to God.
I asked Father what he liked most about being a priest. He said, “Listening to confession.” He felt most people come when they are down and out or depressed. He feels his job is to give them encouragement about God’s love for them. He said Jesus Christ never left anyone without hope.
Finally, Father Murray is not a man that fears death like most of us. He told me why with this last story.
Michelangelo was an “Italian Renaissance sculptor, painter, architect, poet, and engineer who exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of Western art.”
He was once given a piece of flawed marble rejected by another artist. Michelangelo then took the rejected stone and chiseled out what became the priceless statue of David. It’s a work of art so beautiful and perfectly-made that it’s still famous around the world over 500 years later.
Father Murray’s point to the story is we come to earth directly from the hands of God. We are all flawed to begin with. God uses life on earth to chisel each of us like Michelangelo did with his flawed marble. He works so much on each of us that he falls deeper and deeper in love as he shapes and molds us for eternal life. God has worked too hard on you to ever give you up. He loves you. He wants the best for you. He wants to make you His masterpiece and one day you will return to His hands from which you came. So why fear death?
Father Murray, one day I’ll write another column on all the funny stories you told me. My sides are still hurting from the other day.
But the words you gave me were too important.
I wanted to get them out for everyone.
It was something I personally needed to hear.
See you in confession.
Merry Christmas, my friends.