A grateful heart
“I’ve been given so much.
Whatever I am able to return, I am grateful for the opportunity to do it.”
Mary Margaret Murphy SL, Loretto’s new Vice President, laughs as she recalls some of her Machebeuf High School friends talking about entering religious life. Back then, her retort was “Thank you, God. That’s not for me.” But she fondly recalls being deeply touched by the faith, spirit, joy and dedication of the sisters at Machebuef. That is what drew her to them and to their way of life. Now, 54 years later, her heart is filled with gratitude as a Sister of Loretto and humbled by her recent election to Vice President of the community. Her mantra is: “God-given talents are to be shared with others.”
A profound experience in the Loretto novitiate was the summers Mary Margaret spent with the Hispanic migrant laborers in Colorado and Wyoming. During the day, the novices would care for the migrant children in day care centers. During the evenings, they visited the families in the labor camps. Weekends were spent celebrating spirited liturgies, sharing in potluck meals, singing and dancing. Here, Mary Margaret’s life was immersed in theirs. She was struck by the beauty of the Hispanic culture and faith. Her ministry to them has been a passion throughout her life.
As a brand-new first-grade teacher in Taos, New Mexico, she was under the gifted tutelage of Sr. Angelus Caron. Mary Margaret was at first surprised at the multi-cultural composition of her students. She immediately opened herself to learning through the challenge and inspiration that were presented. At the beginning of the school year, she and another teacher decided to spend their Sundays visiting the homes of their students. The rich insights they gained from the families had direct impact upon their approach to being with the children.
Mary Margaret’s call to be with Hispanic people led her to Rawlins, Wyoming, where she assisted with the development of a Head Start day care center. Since this was the only early childhood learning center in Rawlins, the Anglos crossed the bridge into the Hispanic barrio where all were welcomed and lovingly cared for. She continued this work when she move to Pueblo, Colorado, and became director of the newly-founded Eastwood Center located in two Housing Authorities houses.
In 1977, she moved to the San Luis Valley in rural Colorado, which became her home for the next 27 years. She became deeply rooted in the lives of the people who were culturally rich but financial limited. Through advocacy for the elderly, and case management for the sick and disabled, Mary Margaret provided direct services to improve their quality of life. This stretched her to look at systemic changes and moved her to community organizing. Memories of these years fill her with gratitude for the people who welcomed her into their homes and their lives, who allowed her to be present with them in both vulnerable and joyful times, who blessed her with their faith and love.
The next chapter of her life began in 2004, when she, Liz Deines, Eva Maria Salas and Jean Kelley moved to the straw-bale houses in Sunland Park New Mexico, and a few years later relocated to El Paso. She joined Helen Santamaria in opening El Paso Villa Maria, a beautiful and safe shelter for women who are homeless. For 12 years, Mary Margaret assisted the guests to access the essential services they each needed on their journey from crisis to healing. In turn, they taught her the meaning of courage and of unshakable reliance on God.
Now, Mary Margaret is coordinator of the Loretto -Volunteer program in El Paso. She provides her presence and support to five young adults who recently graduated from college and came to give one year of service to five non-profit agencies. Equally important to sharing their gifts of time and talent is their commitment to community, simplicity, justice and spirituality.
In El Paso, she is also living the reality of immigrants in the detention center: of mothers and fathers with their children arriving at the border, fleeing violence and arriving with only their hope for a safe life, and of volunteers who welcome the immigrants with love and compassion, provide for their basic needs and prepare them for their journey to join family or friends in the United States.
Loretto has blessed Mary Margaret with an ongoing deepening awareness of who God is in her life and who this calls her to be. Loretto has gifted her with an understanding of what it means to live focused on a preferential option for the poor and has stretched her to work for justice and act for peace. Throughout her life, she has drawn strength from, and has been modified by, the Loretto Community, especially those she has lived and worked with. In addition, her life has been forever changed because of what she learned from the people she was blessed to be with at: migrant labor camps; Taos and Sunland Park, New Mexico; Rawlins, Wyoming; Pueblo and La Jara, Colorado and El Paso, Texas.
Villa Maria: a haven for vulnerable women
Villa Maria offers intensive support to women who have been homeless, and who have often been victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse. Mary Margaret Murphy SL’s time at the shelter became yet another chance to live, as she describes it, “The example of Jesus in the Gospel that says this is what you are to do and how you are to be.”
Called a “sanctuary” and a “house of miracles” by those whose lives have been changed at the home, residents are provided access to counseling, substance abuse recovery assistance, GED and ESL classes, employment training, financial counseling, medical and mental health care, and most important, a genuine chance to change their lives.
Given a safe place to live, nutritious meals and the opportunity to set and meet life goals, in return, they work to meet their goals, follow house rules and perform chores. The women are required to remain drug and alcohol free and participate in case management. 85% of the residents leave Villa Maria with an income and affordable housing.
“Villa Maria was life-changing for me,” Mary Margaret says. “To really know the stories of people has helped me realize the need to be nonjudgmental, to have an understanding of why some ways of being and acting are there. I was inspired by the faith that so many of the women at Villa Maria have and how they shared that with me.”
Many of the women have lived for years with untreated medical and mental health issues. Many struggle with addictions arising in reaction to abuse. “One woman with a strong addiction to alcohol asked me to pray with her and for her for strength and courage every morning before she went out into the world.”
Awed by the women’s faith and determination, Mary Margaret says, “I worked directly on a very intensive level with the women to help them overcome what had happened in their lives. Where did they get the strength? These were women who had tremendous struggles in their lives but their courage to move forward was amazing.”