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Retiree Emmet Murphy Crosses the Line for Migrant Families

This is part of a series of profiles about the Province’s retired friars. It features what they are doing now, a look back on their ministerial life as friars, and how, even in retirement, they are making a difference in their communities and issues of the day through their activities, interests, and hobbies. 

Emmet Murphy, OFM (Photo from Provincial archives)

ELFRIDA, Ariz. – Before the pandemic, Emmet Murphy, OFM, walked close to three miles a day a few times a week, routinely making the rounds through the tent town dotting the landscape of the Mexican side of the southeast corner of the Arizona-Mexico border. Along with other Franciscan friars and women religious, he led homeless migrants, mostly families and children, to a day shelter a short distance away, providing them with hot meals, clothing, toiletries, running water, and a few hours of dignity and respite from the degradation of tent life.

Emmet, who last year celebrated his 65th anniversary of profession as a friar with Holy Name Province, had been doing this since just after last Thanksgiving and was supposed to return in February to St. Anthony Friary in Butler, New Jersey, where he has been living in retirement since summer 2017.

But the coronavirus outbreak forced him to stay at the U.S.-Mexico border in the small city of Elfrida, 80 miles from Tucson, where he lives in the close-knit, contemplative fraternal community with Franciscan friars from St. Barbara Province.

Some would say Emmet has been stuck at the border for what is now going on 10 months. But Emmet says there’s no place he’d rather be.

“Each day is an enriching experience, living in fraternity with my brother friars. Seeing what our migrant brothers and sisters go through has been eye-opening and heartbreaking. All they want is a better life – and they endure many hardships trying to achieve that,” said Emmet.

But the octogenarian, who celebrated a birthday on Sept. 2, also looks forward to his eventual return to the Province’s Butler retirement house and resuming his ministry work, which includes leading 12-step weekend retreats, helping area parishes with pastoral ministry, and providing spiritual counsel to families and individuals. His work at the border and a full plate of ministries back home hardly sounds like the schedule and lifestyle of someone who is retired.

“You never really retire when you’re a friar. You still have the obligation of fraternity. And even when you retire from ministry, you never really stop ministering,” he said in a phone interview from the friary in Elfrida, where he also helps distribute goods from a food pantry to Mexican-Americans who live in the desert.

“There’s a lot of poverty here. The people live with no electricity or running water. The simplicity in their lives is very moving. Then there are the migrants living in complete squalor. They travel through Central America on a route that is fraught with danger, including encounters with ruthless drug traders,” said Emmet, who also participates in “cross walks” – a local ritual among volunteers and members of religious communities who process to the Mexico border during rush-hour, each carrying a three-foot white wooden cross bearing the names of migrants who have lost their lives on the treacherous road to freedom.

“This serves as a reminder that these lives have not been lost in vain, and that there is hope. The migrants have little to nothing. They don’t have homes; they don’t even have a country – yet they still manage to smile and are grateful for whatever little they have. We are often the first people they encounter on their journey who actually care about them and are trying to help,” Emmet continued. “The laughter and happiness of the children when they’re kicking around a soccer ball in a grassy area near the shelter just strikes me. I get teary-eyed many times, even just talking about it.”

Emmet stands on the Arizona side of the 50-foot wall that divides Mexico and the United States.   (Photo courtesy of Emmet)

First Train to U.S.-Mexico Border
His ministry work with homeless migrants came about from a breakout session that he attended at the June 2019 Chapter of Mats in Denver, Colorado, where a presentation on smaller contemplative communities, particularly the one on the U.S.-Mexico border, caught his attention. The photos in the slideshow were gut-wrenching – almost to the point of disbelief of how migrants are treated.

He didn’t speak Spanish very well and he was told that the climate and 110-degree temperature was unforgiving – and that he would have to wear his Franciscan habit at all times so the drug cartels knew he was a friar. None of that discouraged Emmet from making his first trip to the border town. He packed a bag and hopped on a train cross-country to Elfrida on Oct. 5 of last year.

“It’s a ministry of presence. When you bring people to the shelter – and feed them, and provide a shirt and other necessities – they know they are safe and being cared for. Everyone speaks and understands that language,” said Emmet, who was so moved by the experiences of outreach and fraternity of his first trip (which lasted until Nov. 9), that he made plans to return a few weeks later, right after Thanksgiving. He couldn’t wait to spend Christmas and New Year with the brothers and the migrants. He just never expected to be there for Easter, spring, summer, and now autumn.

Although his trips to the other side of the boundary and work with migrants have been curtailed during the pandemic because the border was shut down to prevent the spread of the virus, Emmet (and the other friars) often make the two-hour drive to Tucson to buy $400 worth of clothing and toiletry items, which they deliver to a men’s shelter in the city.

Despite the tamped-down activity, Emmet says he and the friar community have found plenty to do. There has been more time for fraternal prayer and private contemplative prayer. They celebrate daily Mass — every other day in Spanish (he reports that his Spanish has improved). The pandemic has also provided an opportunity to focus on a simple lifestyle like the one lived by the people they serve. Everyone pitches in with chores, like cooking meals and shopping for provisions and the articles they provide to the men’s shelter and food pantry.

Emmet has even found time to do things he enjoys back home in New Jersey, taking long walks to clear his mind, “ponder and pray,” and reading non-fiction historical books. When the friars make the drive to Tucson, he drops into the local Barnes & Noble, scouring the shelves for books about the holocaust, treatment of Blacks during the 1930s, and Franciscan history – especially friars who came to the American Southwest in the 15th and 16th centuries.

He takes pride in the vegetable garden that he and the friars have cultivated – in particular the beefsteak tomatoes he’s growing. “It’s not easy growing anything in the desert. They require a lot of watering and attention. We had a one-month stretch when the temperature was 100-degrees-plus every day,” said Emmet, who also enjoys birdwatching and setting up a syrupy mixture of warm water and honey for the abundance of hummingbirds that are native to the area.

Emmet  right,  with Hajime Okhara, OFM, left,  and David Buer, OFM, in Douglas, Arizona, on a day when the temperature was 110 degrees. (Photo courtesy of Emmet)

Shrine’s Influence on Franciscan Journey
A native of Arlington, Massachusetts, Emmet says that he was an average student, which he thought eliminated any possibility of pursuing religious life. Like most high school graduates back then, he entered the workforce, taking a job in the stock room of a clothing retailer in Boston. He often visited the nearby St. Anthony Shrine on Arch Street and was captivated by the humility, fraternity, work, and prayer life of the Franciscan friars he met.

“Their joy and ministry impressed me. I guess they invited me to come and see – and I did,” said Emmet, who left his job as a salesman and joined the Province’s training program for brothers in Rye Beach, New Hampshire, in 1953, followed by a year of novitiate in Paterson, New Jersey, where he professed his first vows in 1954. Emmet professed his solemn vows in 1957 at Christ the King Seminary in Western New York.

Perhaps Emmet was drawn to ministry with homeless migrants because his service in the social justice arena can be found throughout his ministerial life – including participation in Maryknoll-sponsored mission trips to Guatemala and El Salvador, and three times going to Catholic Charities-sponsored missions of mercy in New Orleans to help rebuild homes in the ninth ward destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“Going to one of the poorest areas of New Orleans gave me a chance to do some good for people, to help get them back into their homes,” said Emmet.

While stationed at various locations, Emmet has always pitched in with Franciscan outreach ministries, working on the St. Francis Breadline on 31st Street in New York City – which was his introduction to service to the poor and marginalized as a young friar. In Paterson, he served meals in the soup kitchen at Eva’s Village, a comprehensive anti-poverty organization.

His personal journey as a friar was not without the same turbulence experienced by many of the people to whom he provides spiritual counsel. People gravitate to him when they find out that he has been in recovery, now going on 46 years of sobriety, because they know he’s not just listening – he hears and understands their difficulties because he has experienced addiction and the pitfalls that it brings.

“My own experience opens the door to so many counseling opportunities. There is a lot of satisfaction when I can help people, knowing that they feel comfortable opening up about their problems because they know that I understand what they are going through,” said Emmet, who has given dozens of 12-step weekend retreats at the Franciscan Retreat Center in Tampa, Florida; the Graymoor Spiritual Life Center in Garrison, New York; and retreat houses in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Over the past 10 months while holed up in Arizona, Emmet has continued to provide pastoral counseling – long-distance, spending countless hours on the phone with couples experiencing marital woes, families going through a myriad of life issues, and individuals facing addictions.

“People are dealing with anxiety and worries brought on by the pandemic. You have to be there when they need you, whether 2,500 miles away or around the corner. You couldn’t see anyone in person anyway. The only thing is that sometimes people forget the three-hour time difference and call me at five in the morning – but that’s okay,” he said.

A view of Douglas, Arizona.

Co-Founder of St. Francis Inn
In 1977, Emmet was asked to consider a new apostolate of helping the poor in an urban city. He joined two other friars in searching for the ideal location – which took them to Philadelphia, where they learned the ropes of operating a soup kitchen while living in community with another order of religious men.

As a result, Emmet, along with Roderic Petrie, OFM, and Robert Struzynski, OFM, co-founded the St. Francis Inn soup kitchen in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Kensington, providing nourishing meals, clothing, and other necessities to needy individuals and families.

As he looks back on his ministerial life and how St. Francis Inn continues to flourish more than 40 years later – feeding 400 people a day, compared to the 12 that showed up on the first day its doors opened – Emmet says being part of establishing the renowned soup kitchen is a great source of pride and accomplishment. Although Michael Duffy, OFM, a member of the team at St. Francis Inn for the past 33 years, always sings Emmet’s praises for his role in co-founding the facility, Emmet deflects the accolades.

“That it’s still going strong over four decades later is a tribute to the dedication and work that Michael and all of the other friars and volunteers have put into it – and that couldn’t be more gratifying for me, because when we started this, it was a concrete way to reach the people we are called upon as Franciscans to help. That mission is alive and well,” Emmet said.

After 30 years of ministry as a non-ordained friar, it was during his time at the Inn that Emmet felt called to the priesthood. He enrolled at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in theology, and later received his master’s in divinity degree at Pope John XXIII Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts. In 1986, at the age of 52, Emmet was ordained to the priesthood.

Come and See
After serving as an associate at St. Catherine Parish in Ridgewood, New Jersey, Emmet spent the next 12 years – from 1990 to 2002 – as a member of the Franciscan Ministry of the Word, giving retreats and missions in the eastern region, from New York to Florida. Taking a break from the travel demands and living out of a suitcase, he returned to pastoral ministry at St. Anthony Parish in Butler.

His assignments in the South and Northeast have included stops in other New Jersey towns – Ringwood, Pompton Lakes, East Rutherford, and Rochelle Park – and in the cities of Durham and Raleigh in North Carolina, where he also served as chaplain at a federal correctional facility, counseling and ministering to those on death row and in the general population – “people,” he said, “that, sadly, were abandoned by their own families.”

His greatest source of pride in being a Franciscan with Holy Name Province is knowing that friars can and do make a difference – especially with the poor, forgotten, and incarcerated. “We are called to announce the good news where there is so much bad news. We don’t have all the answers, but we move from place to place trying to make a difference,” Emmet said.

“The unique thing about being a Franciscan is the freedom we have – not meaning free time or doing your own thing – but the freedom to have the opportunity of what I am doing today at the U.S.-Mexico border. Our contemplative and prayer life flows into our active ministry,” he added.

As someone with close to seven decades in ministerial life, Emmet has three words for someone contemplating religious vocation: “Come and see. I would invite them to come and see our ministry. The Church, especially under Pope Francis, is calling us to work in small, contemplative, and active communities. Come and see how we minister as Franciscans.”

The pandemic, he says, has provided a unique opportunity to address social injustices, whether it be racial, economic, or environmental.

“The pandemic is a clarion call to do something – to be prophets, not so much in our speech, but to act out. Just as they did in Old Testament scripture, we are being called to right the injustices of our time,” said Emmet, adding, “and as long as I have the strength, I want to be someone who can be part of the solution to injustices in some small way.”

Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.

Editor’s note: Friars who have been featured in previous retiree profiles include Peter Ahlheim, OFM; Martin Bednar, OFMRomuald Chinetsky, OFMEd Flanagan, OFMTom Jones, OFM; Vianny Justin, OFM; and Bernardine Kessing, OFM.

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