As I sit here in my home on a brutally frigid Sunday morning listening to the KNVL Polka Show, I am transported back to another place and time.
My mind wanders back to the countless Whoopi John requests that we would enjoy on our road trip to see one of our all-time favorite priests, Father James Murphy. We were on our way up to Mass in Ericson where he was always waiting to give us a big hug and a smile.
Tradition would then state that, following services, we would all travel across the highway to The Ranch Cafe for one of the best Sunday buffets in the Sandhills. Neither event ever disappointed, and we counted down the days until we could get together again with Father Murphy.
Sadly, however, that treasured family memory has come to an end. Father James Murphy passed away on Jan. 21, 2021. A member of the Yax/King families for decades, he leaves behind an incredible legacy.
Born to Emmet and Margaret (O’Brien) Murphy, he grew up on the family farm outside of Spalding. Surrounded by his four brothers and two sisters, he grew up cultivating a deep and abiding love for his faith and life on the Greeley County homeplace.
James Murphy received the sacraments of baptism and confirmation at St. Michael’s Catholic Church. A graduate of Spalding Academy in 1943, Murphy went on to pursue multiple career choices, from farmhand to the hotel business and the railroad. He even gave the United States Army a try, but none of them made him happy.
That is, until he received his call to join the priesthood. Murphy’s first Mass was said in his hometown of Spalding in 1955, surrounded by his family and friends in his beloved St. Michael’s Catholic Church.
His first parish assignment was serving as pastor of St. James parish in Kearney. Other appointments from 1961 until 1993 included St. Ann’s in Morrill, Alliance, Scottsbluff, Lyman and Bayard.
He also served the Grand Island Diocese as shepherd to the flocks in Ainsworth, Springview, St. Joseph’s in Wolbach and Sts. Peter & Paul in St. Paul.
Coming full circle, Murphy “retired” back to the Murphy family farm in 1993, where he served the Families of Faith, including St. Therese in Ericson, St. Michael’s in Spalding and Sacred Heart in Greeley.
Father Murphy lived out his life in service to God, his communities and families for more than 65 years.
I had visited with Father Murphy a couple of weeks before he passed away.
He had gotten his COVID-19 vaccination and was anxious to leave his “solitary confinement” in Albion and return home to Spalding. God answered his prayers and he was able to return to his beloved Greeley County and to his flock.
On the evening of Jan. 21, Father Murphy went to sleep in his own bed and woke up in heaven. I’d like to imagine that this was a thank-you from our heavenly Father to a favorite son, Father Murphy, for a job well done!
Shortly after the word was received about the loss of Father Murphy, it was understood that his brother, Mike Murphy, had passed away in California.
Betty Logan, one of the Murphy nieces, explained, “It was surreal that our two wonderful uncles are gone within hours of each other.
“They were the last of my dad’s siblings. It is the end of our direct source to all of those great Murphy family stories. Father Jim was big on planning family reunions, so I would have imagined that there was the ultimate one in heaven that day,” Logan added.
Father Murphy was known to be a man of quick wit, deep faith and those Irish eyes that always seemed to smile at you wherever he went.
His last services here on earth reflected that same spirit.
At Father Murphy’s memorial service, Father Don Buhrman shared with those gathered how he had been given sage advice by Father Murphy regarding his new assignment here in Spalding, “This community and town have a deep respect for its priests, don’t screw it up!”
At Father Murphy’s funeral the next day, a memorable homily was given by Father Joe Hannappel. It was filled with love and laughter, and an occasional moment of grief.
But Father Joe would regain his composure and shout out, “for crying out loud,” as he fulfilled his obligation.
Father Joe reminisced of the time when one of Father Murphy’s brothers was quite ill. As Father Murphy approached the dying man, in typical Murphy style, the sibling requested that his last rights come from “a real priest!”
Father Joe remembered the Murphy brothers, Clete and Father Murphy, and their attempt at recreating their own little Garden of Eden on the family farm outside of Spalding. Despite the “blanket-y blank” raccoons, they raised a bountiful garden with plenty to share out of their trunk after Sunday Mass in Ericson.
It was part of this good ol’ pioneer ingenuity and persistence that Father Murphy became quite a fundraiser, offering up jars of his homemade jams and jellies for sale. It was then that Father Joe raised up one of these coveted jars of chokeberry jelly and began the bidding.
He very quickly landed on a “$1,000 bid” from Bishop Emeritus Dendinger, which garnered quite a laugh.
In between the stories, Father Joe would ask, “Praise God?” to which everyone would reply, “Thank God for Father Murphy!”
I have no doubt that Father Murphy knew what he was doing when he had requested Father Joe for this honored yet emotionally difficult position.
At the end of the sermon, Father Joe proclaimed, “Lord have Murphy, Christ have Murphy, Lord have Murphy!’
Trust me, every celebration of the Mass that I have attended since that memorable morning, I still cannot get the new “Father Murphy” version out of my head!
But, it’s as it should be. No one will soon forget Father Murphy! I know I won’t forget him any time soon!
Sharon Swett, a parishioner at St. Therese in Ericson, shared her thoughts of their longtime pastor. “There will never be another Father Murphy. He was a great teacher to all of us. He was full of wisdom and what it truly meant to be a follower of Jesus.”
She pauses and hesitated for a moment, “He was our priest for so long that even now, I still feel his presence when I go into our church.”
Betty Logan continued with her thoughts on her uncle. “Within our family, Father Jim was nicknamed ‘The Padre.’ He was our patriarch, uncle to 24, the historian, storyteller and the one that brought us together and kept us connected.
He organized the Murphy ‘extended family’ reunions that we nicknamed “farmapaloozza!” Needless to say, these were not the boring potluck at the park type!
“In late December while still at the nursing home, ‘The Padre’ called me and said, ‘I guess I’m going to live and I’ve had too much time to think. I want to plan a reunion to celebrate my 95th birthday on Feb. 17, 2021.’
“Sadly, that reunion didn’t happen here on earth. But, the Murphys will do their best to carry on into the future. The reunions will never be the same without him, but his goal of keeping us connected will be achieved. I know that his Irish eyes will be smiling down upon us.”
Betty Logan would like to invite us all to go on that journey with her. “I’d ask that you all go forth with kindness in your heart, live life with passion, have a strong faith and love another as Father Murphy would have.”
Praise God? Thank God for Father Murphy!