Karen Adams, Special to The Catholic Virginian
As a young girl in Richmond, Sister Josephine Murphy dreamed not of religious life but of growing up to marry and have lots of children.
“When I was four years old, I told my mother I wanted 100 babies someday,” she recalled recently. “I didn’t want to be a nun. But God had other plans for me.”
Those plans led her, in 1946 at age 17, to join the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul and spend the next seven decades caring for infants, children, teens, young adults, and single mothers in need, in mission work in Maryland, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.
Speaking by phone from Villa Saint Michael, her retirement residence in Emmitsburg, Maryland, Sister Josephine, 88, reflected on her 71 years as a nun. She celebrated her 70th anniversary last year and is now retired.
Born in Richmond in 1928, she was the youngest of John and Josephine Ann Murphy’s three daughters. She grew up in a house on Marshall Street in the Church Hill neighborhood and attended St. Patrick Catholic School. Although the school is now an apartment building, Sister Josephine remembers it fondly — from the wooden stairs (“They still squeak”) to the admirable Daughters of Charity who taught her.
“I saw how the sisters were to poor kids, their deference and kindness,” she said.
After school, she and her friends often saw the sisters come out of their house with shopping bags of food and clothing donations.
“They would go down to [Shockoe] Bottom, where the poor people lived by the river, to help them. I loved the sisters and their work, and all of that appealed to me,” she said.
Her aunt, Sister Magdalen Ross, also was a teacher with the order, so she was familiar with the Daughters of Charity, but as a student she never thought of becoming one herself.
‘God has his way’
After graduating at 16 in 1945, she applied to work as a secretary. When she could not decide between two job offers, she sought the advice of Sister Adele, her former business teacher, whom she admired and respected. They sat in a St. Patrick classroom with wooden flip-top desks while Sister Adele listened. Eventually she asked, “Are you sure you want to do either?”
“I knew she was suggesting the religious life,” Sister Josephine said. “Well, in those days I had a temper. I stood up, lifted one of the desk tops, slammed it down, and said, ‘I am not going to be a nun!’ I walked out of the classroom and slammed the door behind me. Then I went down the squeaky stairs and slammed the outside door, too, and went home.”
She accepted a secretarial bank job and worked through the summer and fall of 1945.
“But you know, God has his way,” she mused.
A few months in, she began to wonder about her life purpose. She still loved babies and kept thinking about the Daughters of Charity, who ran homes for children.
“God evolves all of those interests in us,” she said. In December, she decided to join the order.
When she told her parents, her father (“He and God were bosom buddies”) simply said, “Well, then you must be the very best woman religious you can be, because we only give God our best.”
She has remembered those words every day since then.
Sister Josephine became a Daughter of Charity on April 7, 1946, as a novice, and a year later received her habit with the white cornette. She prayed that God would send her to work with children — and her prayer was soon answered, as it was year after year.
At her first mission, at Saint Mary’s Villa in Baltimore, Sister Josephine cared for 62 children. When her mother heard this she remarked, “Well, God has almost given you the 100 you wanted!”
Angry about child abuse
Sister Josephine made her vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and service to the poor on May 1, 1951, and, like other Daughters of Charity, has renewed her vows every year on the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25).
Over the years, she has worked in many capacities, including as social worker and administrator of children’s homes, day care and other programs. But, she said, she always had lots of help, first and foremost from God, who sent other sisters as well as many caring people in each church and community as support.
Once, while working in Georgetown, South Carolina, she learned that some of the adults served by her parish, Saint Cyprian, needed transportation to get to work and to church. She asked her parish for donations of old bicycles.
“People went into their basements and garages and donated about 30 bikes for us, and some men from the parish fixed them up for those who needed them,” she said. “All we had to do was ask.”
In 1988, when she arrived at St. Ann’s Infant Asylum in Washington, D.C., where she would remain for 17 years as administrator, she saw shocking cases of abuse and neglect. Some of the children were so traumatized that she was traumatized, too. She remembers one little girl who screamed the first time Sister Josephine tried to wash her hair by leaning over the sink because that was how her abusive parent had tried to drown her.
“Those children endured things most of us cannot imagine, and it made me so angry,” she recalled. But God is always near in the hardest times, she added, noting there are many good people who want to help.
Congressional testimony makes a difference
One of those helpers was Mary McGrory, the formidable Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist, who volunteered weekly at St. Ann’s to read to children. The two women became great friends.
“Some people in the Senate and Congress were afraid of her,” Sister Josephine recalled.
When McGrory heard about Sister Josephine’s anger about vulnerable children being returned to abusive homes, she told her to go to Congress and speak to them. The nun had gained confidence by speaking to United Way groups over the years, but had never expected to do something as unnerving as appear before Congress. Yet, God gives us the courage to do what he wants us to do, she said.
As a result of her powerful congressional testimony, the groundbreaking Adoption and Safe Families Act was passed in 1997 to protect children like those in her care.
“Sister Josephine is a fabulous lady,” said her cousin, Bill Murphy, of Richmond. “She is so modest about her work, but she’s really a Mother Teresa type of person.”
Some of the children Sister Josephine looked after years ago have kept in touch. It warms her heart to hear about their lives; many have gone to college, gotten good jobs, and married, and now have children of their own.
“I always wanted lots of babies and God gave me more than a thousand,” she said with a laugh. “He’s been so good to me. I’ve had a beautiful life.”