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Sister Murphy, tireless advocate for the needy, retires
By Julie Filby
Before Sister Mary Alice Murphy, O.L.V.M., came to town, it seemed the poor in Fort Collins were invisible.
“In Fort Collins poverty is pretty well hidden,” Sister Murphy told the Denver Catholic Register.
“You can go from one end to the other and think it’s quite a prosperous town—and in many ways, it is—but like most communities, there’s always that soft underbelly of poverty that’s not recognized.”
Sister Murphy has spent the last 28 years raising awareness of the town’s poor and homeless, and establishing services to provide them food, shelter and an opportunity to get back on their feet. At age 80, Sister Murphy has retired.
“Sister Mary Alice has made an indelible mark in Fort Collins on all of the projects she’s done,” said longtime friend and colleague John Borman, a parishioner of St. Joseph Church. “I don’t think there’s any one that could be singled out as her flagship.”
Initiatives of her legacy include CARE Housing that provides affordable housing for low-income working families, The Mission homeless shelter, the Homeless Prevention Initiative that provides rental assistance to people faced with losing their homes, the Sister Mary Alice Murphy Center for Hope that coordinates resources to help the less fortunate maintain self-sufficiency, and the Hand Up Cooperative that matches homeless job candidates with employers.
“Sister Mary Alice has a real driving inner force,” said Borman who has worked with her on all of these projects. “She understands the needs of society, and has been a protector of the poor in so many, many different ways.”
Sister Murphy, a native of Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, has been a member of Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters since 1948. She received a bachelor’s degree in social work from Siena Heights College in Adrian, Mich., in 1960.
Based on a need for social service workers, her community placed her at the Holy Spirit Center at Denver’s Holy Ghost Church in the late 60s. In Denver, she attended the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work and received a master’s degree in 1971.
“In exchange for tuition Catholic Charities sent me to school and I promised to give two years of service,” she said. “Two years turned into 10; the whole thing worked out really well.”
From the time she graduated she supervised DU social work students, and once moving to Fort Collins, did the same for Colorado State University students.
“I’ve supervised at least 25 students in the field of social work,” she said. “A lot of those students ended up being hired by United Way, Catholic Charities or other agencies.”
In 1983 she moved to Fort Collins to serve as director of Catholic Community Services Northern (now Catholic Charities). At that time the organization was becoming more aware of the town’s poor population based on growing requests at food banks, and the need for an overnight shelter.
“There was no shelter in Fort Collins at the time,” said Sister Murphy.
Thanksgiving the next year when a terrible snowstorm hit, Father Tom Coyte, then pastor of St. Joseph’s, left the church doors open to provide shelter for the homeless. Based on the number of people that sought shelter, he asked Sister Murphy: “Can’t we do something about a night shelter?” She responded by setting up cots in a youth room in the back of the church. From there, the vision and the realties grew.
“My experience has been you start out small,” she said, “and the thing you’re trying to do starts to grow … then you’re meeting a need but you’re often faced with a bigger problem.”
She attributes the projects’ successes to God and the people of Fort Collins.
“I rely heavily on God,” she said, “If I’m going to take something on—and it’s a really big need—I trust that he’s going to provide the people and resources. There’s no way I can do it myself.”
Throughout her ministry she has surrounded herself with capable help.
“I’ve been able to find some absolutely fantastic people in Fort Collins who had skills that I didn’t have, and were willing to use them to help people who were suffering and in need,” she said. “When you’ve got that, you can accomplish a great deal.”
She’s grateful knowing there are people to continue the work of serving the poor.
“Right now there are very fine, capable younger people that are as passionate about working with the poor as I am,” she said. “I can retire because they can take over … and that gives me great hope.”
Sister Murphy plans to stay in Fort Collins and have more time for prayer, movies, books, swimming and playing with her dog Mollie, a Lhasa Apso, she recently rescued.
“She’s not going to sit around the house,” said Borman. “She’s going to be out doing something positive for somebody—she’s a dynamo of energy.”