Bicentennial Moments and Memories: Remembrances of Msgr. Edward Murray

We were sitting at a table in the Four Provinces tavern in Roslindale Square, four or five of us drinking “dimies,” a small glass of tap beer for a dime. We were in our early 20s, a couple of us veterans of the Korean War. The subject of our conversation was -- as you would expect with such young men -- women. Or more specifically sex in and out of marriage.

One of us, his name will not be recorded here despite the fact that he is now dead, brought up a question embarrassing enough to bring color to some faces. Well, as the discussion went on, the instigator thought it best that we ask a priest so he got up and called the rectory of our parish, Sacred Heart. As it happened, the pastor, Msgr. Edward G. Murray answered the phone. The upshot of the conversation was that he invited us to come to the rectory once a month to discuss such matters.

Those first-Monday-of-every-month young men’s discussion groups offered us the opportunity not only to talk about the questions of faith and morals facing young Catholic men with the erudite Msgr. Murray but to be introduced to others we would have never met if it were not for him -- such as the famous Jesuit, Father John Lafarge and Bishop John J. Wright before he went to the Vatican.

Father Murray came to Sacred Heart Parish in 1951, the first pastor to be born in the 20th century, and came with an impressive resume. Born in the Back Bay section of Boston, Ed Murray graduated from the Prince School, Boston Latin and received his bachelor’s degree cum laude at the College of the Holy Cross. He spent a year at Harvard Law School, entered St. John’s Seminary, was chosen to complete his studies at the North American College in Rome and was ordained to the priesthood in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome in 1930. Three years after being assigned to teach at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Father Murray was appointed its rector, the youngest leader of a major seminary in the United States.

Urbane, ever sophisticated, and as the Boston Globe once described him -- “sometimes warm, sometimes distant,” the new pastor was not overly popular with some of his parishioners, who felt, as one old Irish woman, a staple of the parish, put it “talks down to us.” And soon enough he got into an imbroglio with the Roslindale community.

Facing extreme overcrowding in the parish’s school -- St. Francis Xavier -- Father Murray, in conjunction with nearby Holy Name Parish, West Roxbury, proposed to purchase the Washington Irving Public School, which stood just down Cummins Highway from the church. That the archdiocesan authorities knew of his plans there is no doubt, whether or not they approved of them became a matter of dispute.

Msgr. Murray claimed that enrollment at the Washington Irving had declined 40 percent in the last decade and if he could not buy the school, he would build a new, larger parochial school which would draw even more pupils away from the public school.

A public meeting, attended by 500 people, met to oppose the proposed purchase. In face of the now vocal opposition, which included the Superintendent of the Boston Public Schools Dennis C. Healy, the offer to purchase Washington Irving was withdrawn. Three years later, on October 23, 1954, Archbishop Richard Cushing laid the cornerstone of a new 18 classroom Sacred Heart Grammar School on what had been an open and often soggy field on Canterbury Street.

The true legacy of Father Murray lies not in his intellect, nor his years as rector of the seminary nor as pastor for 20 years of a large parish, nor in the public posts he held -- president of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library, trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, nor in the honors he received -- Chevalier of the Legion of Honor of France and Cavallere dell’Ordine Al Merito of Italy, but rather in the furthering of a movement that he espoused early on, even before most people had heard of it, let alone could spell it -- the ecumenical movement.

Based on the supposition that God is the Father of us all -- Catholic, Protestant, Jew and Muslim, and thus we are all brothers and sisters, the movement sought to heal the divisions, close the gaps of understanding and tolerance between the various faiths. Not an easy task in those days of suspicion and mistrust and not a universally popular one in a city where such enmity was of long standing and for some, even a matter of pride.

For his work as advisor to Cardinal Cushing during the Second Vatican Council, Father Murray was lauded by Harvard theologian James Luther Adams as “an effective guide for non-Catholic observers.” Rabbi Marc Tennenbaum claimed: “We owe Msgr. Murray an enormous debt of gratitude for the quiet, patient, influential role he played at Cardinal Cushing’s side.”

Neil J. Savage was born and still lives in Boston. He is a former Associate Commissioner of the Metropolitan District Commission and served as a member of the Massachusetts State Archives Commission.