Lifelong Methodist realizes she was Catholic all along
By Karen Mahoney
Special to Your Catholic Herald
It is one thing to devote your life to sharing your faith, but entirely another to share a faith to which you didn't realize you belonged all along.
For years, Sharon Murphy, a lifelong Methodist, fulfilled her promise to raise her daughter, Erin, and two sons, Timothy and Kevin, in the Catholic faith, as was promised when she and her husband, Chuck, were married in the early 1960s.
In the early years of their marriage in North Dakota, where she taught junior high school English, Murphy, 66, remembers how earnestly her mother-in-law tried to help her understand church doctrines.
"It seemed so formidable and so harsh to me," she admitted. "But because of her sweetness and goodness, I tried, but wasn't able to accept. Those times, 46 years ago, were very different than they are now. The divide between Catholic and Protestant was very wide at that time."
At first, she attended her Methodist church while her husband and children went to Mass at their home parish. However, juggling little children and two faiths proved difficult, so Murphy began attending with her family.
Not long after, the parish priest asked for volunteers to teach religious education, and while she was not Catholic, she offered to help if they were interested.
"They welcomed me with open arms," Murphy said, "I taught my second son's class for two years, was given lesson plans and learned as much as I taught. In just those few years, the church's rigid teachings had lessened and I was able to embrace the fact that although my children were not of my faith, they were being given a good foundation for their lives.
I was pleased."
The children attended Catholic high school in the Twin Cities, and Timothy, the oldest, graduated magna cum laude from St. Thomas University. Kevin attended St. Norbert College, joined the Army and served four years in Germany. Erin graduated summa cum laude from Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire.
"While we were out East, we attended a little Catholic Church where we got a really good lesson in dialect," Murphy joked. "No r's in words like 'Lord,' but added in words like 'idea.'"
Moving back to Wisconsin and the Midwest felt like coming home to Murphy and her husband, who were approaching their golden years. With their children grown, married and living near Wisconsin, the move was a chance to get to know their eight grandchildren.
"We retired, and now there was time to read and read some more, do all the gardening we'd talked about, all the trips we'd discussed, all the cookies to bake and the bird garden to build," she said. "Now every meal was spent observing our feathered friends from the window by our table. Life was good. We were so blessed."
Despite living the retirees' dream, Murphy couldn't shake an unexplained shadow of discontent and a sense of loneliness and loss. She had everything they dreamed about and more. Last year, on Palm Sunday, she knelt before the crucifix at her home parish, St. Paul the Apostle in Racine, but was at a loss on what to pray.
"I just stared at the crucifix on the altar," she confessed. "Later, as I listened to Fr. Bill's (Dietzler) homily and heard about Christ's suffering for us, and how we need to consider our pain and suffering a contribution to what he so freely gave for us, I knew then that I no longer had any disagreements. I embraced these messages. All these many years, I had been a Catholic. I don't even know when it happened; I just finally knew it had. It was time to make it official."
Hesitant at waiting so many years to convert to the Catholic faith, Murphy was shocked at the reaction of one of the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) staff members when she stated her intentions.
"She just looked at me and simply said, 'Welcome,'" Murphy said. "And that is exactly how I feel. The RCIA program has been so helpful and informative in my own personal struggles with my many faults - but most of all, it is so very welcoming. The Rite of Election at the Cathedral in Milwaukee was so beautiful and special. It will remain one of my most treasured memories."
Murphy explained her ongoing desire to learn as much as she can about Catholicism as an education that demands to be continued.
"The people at St. Paul and the other churches we've visited have all been so kind and willing to share their knowledge," she admitted. "The lessons we have learned from many of the area's priests and teachers have been wonderful and I don't think I will ever be able to express my gratitude fully to these good people."
Perhaps the wisdom of that North Dakota priest who accepted a non-Catholic into teaching a children's religious education program planted a seed. While she realizes some may have regarded his decision as unwise, Murphy described how it has left her with a childlike enthusiasm for a faith that many cradle Catholics take for granted.
"This Easter Vigil I was finally able to join in the sacrament of the Eucharist; I no longer have to scrunch myself up so people can wiggle by me on the pew as they go to receive Christ's body and blood," she exclaimed. "I can finally join them! I can be a part of this community. I can't think of a better way to end this journey, or to begin the rest of my life."