Fr. Emmet Murphy, OFM
Although I was raised at St. Agnes in Arlington, Mass. — a parish staffed by diocesan priests — I was one of the nine candidates who joined the Franciscans of Holy Name in 1951. St. Anthony Shrine in downtown Boston happened to be my first contact with the friars. Their joy and ministry immediately impressed me.
After working for ten years as a salesman in Boston, I entered the Franciscan brothers training program in Rye Beach, N.H., followed by a year in the novitiate in Paterson, N.J. During these formative years, we practiced discipline and learned the rule of the Order of Friars Minor, plus the history of the Order and of the Province. My love for the Order and Province grew deeper.
In mid-summer 1957, I was transferred from the lush rolling hills of the scenic Delaware Valley at St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., to the gritty, noisy, busy streets of midtown Manhattan, a half-block from Penn Station and Madison Square Garden. It proved to be quite an adjustment for me. As always, the community of friars — 77 in number — at St. Francis of Assisi Church on 31st Street was welcoming and fraternal.
My duties included giving food and coffee or tea at the morning breadline, assisting with the 18 daily Masses, taking up collections plus working at the front desk and serving as assistant guestmaster. One of our new ministries at 31st street was the “sidewalk apostolate,” simply chatting and greeting the folks coming out after Mass. The ministry — in which late Br. John Bosco Rubino, OFM, and I specialized — was well received by the Massgoers, many of whom were visitors to the Big Apple, staying in local hotels. The ministry proved to be a great way to connect with our parishioners as well as tourists.
I also became friendly with the firefighters from Engine 1 and Ladder 24 in the firehouse directly across the street from the church. The firemen supplied me with firefighting gear, and I rode with them on the rigs when they answered alarms. From this kind of association, some of our friars became official FDNY chaplains, including the late Fr. Julian Deeken, OFM, and Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM — so well known as the first responder to die in the Twin Towers terrorist attack — and the present chaplain, Fr. Christopher Keenan, OFM. I became chaplain to the New York City Police Department Anchor Club, a branch of the Knights of Columbus.
All in all, I spent 13 fruitful and happy years at St. Francis Church, but my journey with the friars was not without its heartaches and pitfalls. Along the way I had neglected my early lessons in discipline and prayer and developed an addiction to alcohol, which completely unraveled my religious life. I was urged to take a leave of absence in order to bring peace to my chaotic life.
Through prayer and much help from others, my life began to come together again. To borrow a powerful scripture passage: “Crooked paths were made straight.”
After an absence of two years, I was re-admitted to the life of a friar and asked to consider entering into a new apostolate to help poor people in Philadelphia with Fr. Roderic Petrie, OFM. Soon, Fr. Robert Struzynski, OFM, joined us.
After surveying the needs, we searched for a building in the impoverished Kensington section of the city that was to become St. Francis Inn. We bought an old tavern below the Market Frankford elevated train line for $9,000 and immediately set out to renovate the building. The first floor was the kitchen and dining room, the second floor to be rooms for the friars.
On Dec. 16, 1979, the first day we opened this ministry to the poor so dear to the heart of St. Francis, we fed 29 people. Since then, St. Francis Inn has been open every day of the year, and last year the permanent staff of four friars, two Franciscan Sisters and three dedicated laywomen plus a host of volunteers served nearly 150,000 hot, nourishing meals to families and to single men and women — some unemployed but most of them retired persons who cannot survive on their fixed incomes — and to others trapped by addictions, as I had been.
It was in Philly that I felt called to priesthood. I enrolled at St. Francis College for philosophy studies and Pope John XXIII for theology. I was ordained to the priesthood in 1986 at the ripe age of 52. Last June, at age 78, I took up residence at St. Anthony Friary in Butler, N.J., after having spent almost four years in the large, very active Franciscan parish in Raleigh, N.C. I served as one of the North Carolina State prison chaplains, ministering to death row and general population inmates. I found the Raleigh’s Catholic community warm and friendly as they opened their homes and hearts to me.
My current priestly ministry has been in the Ministry of the Word, that is, preaching parish missions and leading Twelve Step retreats. At times, I am also called to help out in neighboring parishes.
As I look back, I consider my life a blessed and incredulous journey. I thank all of you, members of St. Anthony Guild and readers of The Anthonian, for your love and support.
I would do it all over again!
— This article was published in the Winter 2012-13 issue of The Anthonian, when Fr. Emmet was serving at St. Anthony Church, Butler, N.J.