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Sister Madeleine Rita Murphy

(Mary Theresa)

December 23, 1912 - March 27, 2008

We are gathered here this evening to celebrate the passing into eternal life of a beloved Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary: Sister Madeleine Rita Murphy. Born Mary Theresa Murphy on the 23rd of December in the year 1912, Sister Madeleine Rita began her earthly journey as the youngest---and now the last---of the twelve children born to a pioneer Berkeley family. She was a happy child, precocious in her own way, and curious about everything around her Highly intelligent, she was a quick learner, and the Murphy household in itself must have been like an exciting and demanding classroom for the preparation of life in the larger world.

It was late in the year 1928 when the early shadows of a deep sorrow began to fall upon the Murphy family home. Delia Murphy, her mother, having spent the previous 3 months at St. Mary's Hospital in San Francisco, her body weakened and debilitated by the ravages of the flu, returned home to be with her family for the remainder of her days. Arrangements had been made for her to be attended by a private nurse at home. As happens so often in the Providence of things, her nurse, Laura Flynn, happened to have a sister who was a Sister of the Holy Names, Sister Loretta Marie. Laura Flynn spoke in glowing terms of the very fine education offered by the Sisters, and Mary Theresa, now a sophomore at Berkeley High School, was intrigued and eager to learn more. On December 21, 1928, Delia Murphy passed away peacefully, her earthly mission accomplished.

 It was Mary Theresa's 16th birthday and two days before Christmas. This was a time of unspeakable sadness for the Murphy family, for in mourning their terrible loss, they all knew that things would never be the same again. Michael Mark Murphy, in the throes of coping with his own loss, nonetheless wanted to provide the very best for his youngest child, now the last of the Murphy children still at home. In a matter of days contact was made with the Holy Names Sisters, and arrangements were made for Mary Theresa to become a boarding student at the high school by the lake.

She arrived at the school and enrolled in early January,1929, prepared to do her best, but her usual enthusiasm was greatly dampened by the keen awareness that in a very short period of time she had to say goodbye to her mother, her family life and her home.

Mary Theresa could not have known that two angels awaited her in her new home by the lake, in the persons of Sister Catherine of Siena and Sister Theresa Maria Heafy.  Individually and together they read the plight of their newest student, and with exquisite sensitivity and care they guided and supported her as she dealt with the trauma of multiple loss. In time she was able to find herself again and establish new bearings. She was a fine student, greatly appreciative, active in student life, and she was in the last class to graduate at the lake.

Upon her graduation from Holy Names High School, Mary Theresa attended Holy Names College in Oakland for two years, and then entered the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, taking the religious name of Sister Madeleine Rita. For a number of years, she had been drawn to religious life by the example of the Sisters, their standards of excellence, and a growing desire to participate in living their way of life.

Following completion of her Novitiate training, Sister Madeleine Rita joined the mainstream of her community in its mission and its work: that of high quality education. for those who could afford it and for those who could not. In her early years as a religious she taught throughout the elementary and middle school grades, in San Francisco, in the East Bay, and in Southern California. She was an excellent teacher, balancing didactics with discipline. Her specialty over the years was the teaching of junior high school age students, an age and stage in the educational journey that many fine educators would shy away from, if they had the chance. But Sister Madeleine Rita was a natural, having honed her skills growing up with those 10 older brothers and sisters, and she could read her students plans for classroom intrigue like the back of her hand. Consequently, she ran a tight ship, and her students loved her.

Academic comportment was on a par with academic excellence in Sister Madeleine Rita's classroom, and she could be very strict and demanding. If you acted up in class or persisted in talking without permission, you might be surprised when you opened your report card and found your grades had dropped a notch or two. It was the total experience that counted, and you understood the next time and you got it right.

For a period of several years and while carrying a full teaching load, Sister Madeleine Rita herself became a student again, earning master degrees in both Library Science and Mathematics. She accomplished this, as did so many other religious at the time, by piecing together the requisite courses taken over summers, evenings, and weekends until she had reached her goals.

In 1967 Bishop Floyd Begin of Oakland, recognizing Sister Madeleine Rita's fine mind and exceptional competence, appointed her Associate Superintendent of School for the Oakland Diocese, to work in collaboration with Father Thomas O'Shea, who was Superintendent at the time. In this capacity she oversaw 52 schools throughout both Alameda and Contra Costa counties, a remarkable feat in its own right, but even more so when one remembers that only recently beforehand, she had just learned to drive. She rose to the challenge and did a splendid job, and this at a time when much was beginning to change, not only in religious life, but also in the life of the secular culture.

In appreciation of her work, Bishop Begin recommended Sister Madeleine Rita for the Pro Ecclesia Pontifice recognition, the papal honor given to laity and religious for outstanding service to the church. This honor was bestowed upon her by the Vatican under Pope Paul VI in 1977.

In 1986 Sister Madeleine Rita was appointed Archivist of the California Province, and she remained in that capacity until her definitive retirement in 2003. During her tenure as archivist she meticulously sorted and integrated the historical records of the California Province and wrote the biographies of the Sisters who so courageously journeyed from Canada to San Francisco to -Her book, "Through the Golden Gate in 1868," published in 1988, depicts in moving detail the courage, the determination, and the faith of these heroic women amidst the perils and the extraordinary challenges they faced in carrying out their mission.

Looking back upon a life that has been so rich in accomplishment, one stands in awe of the courage and determination it must have taken to have gone through it all. In recent years Sister Madeleine Rita began to speak her truth more openly at community gatherings as to how she saw things. And she spoke without concern as to how her words would be heard. She spoke with forthrightness, it not bluntness, and her words, while in retrospect often prophetic, did not always enhance her popularity at the time.

For all her achievements and life experiences, the last few years found Sister Madeleine Rita increasingly out of sorts. And no one really had a clue as to why. Not her community, not her family, not her friends, and not even her niece, the psychiatrist.

It may well have been her version of the great existential struggle which inevitably will come to us all, that wrestling with God, that settling of accounts before letting go and stepping into the Unknown, hoping, hoping that the tenets of faith, forged over a life time will hold. Near the end, the depth of her struggle was most clearly manifested in the physical realm. For her last 14 days, and with fierce determination, her body defied the basic laws of physiology, giving her the bit more time she needed to bring it all together, experience the peace and confirmation of resolution, and finally let go.

And so, Mary Theresa Murphy / Sister Madeleine Rita, we bid you farewell. We honor your life on this earth as a beloved aunt, an outstanding educator, a fine religious, and a wonderfully unique woman, courageous and generous through so much in your life that was not easy. You will always be in our thoughts, our hearts, and our prayers, and you have our gratitude for so very much. You did the very best you could for as long as you could, and now we leave the rest---as we ask you to do for us---to the magnanimity and the mercy of God.

Excerpts from the reflections given by Sister Madeleine Rita's niece, Halley.