Mourners Reflect on Life of Bishop George Murry

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – In 2017, the Rev. Benson Okpara traveled from his parish, St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Canton, to his home in Nigeria. The Most Rev. George Murry, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, accompanied Okpara to get to know the priest’s family.

That was one of the memories Okpara recalled while leaving Murry’s calling hours on Thursday at St. Columba Cathedral in Youngstown. Mourners gathered at the Wood Street cathedral during the five-hour public calling hours, followed by an evening prayer.

Murry, 71, died on Monday at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York.

Okpara said the trip to Nigeria was an example of Murry’s approach as a “shepherd.”

“I had been with him in this diocese for all the time he had been here,” Okpara said. “But he felt, ‘I need to know this guy a little more.’ ”

Starting in 1974, Murry taught at high schools and colleges – his final stop was at the University of Detroit-Mercy in 1994. Okpara and others described Murry’s ability to teach carried into his work with the Catholic Church.

Part of that work was overseeing the Parish Reconfiguration plan, which was promulgated by Murry in 2010 and concluded in July 2012 with the merger of SS. Cyril and Methodius Church, Warren, and St. James Church, Warren, into St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, according to releases from the diocese at the time. The plan left the six-county diocese with 101 churches merged into 87 parishes, down from 112 parishes in 2010.

As Murry traveled throughout the diocese to visit churches and Catholic schools, he taught the churchgoers how to deal with the “downsizing,” said Beri Berardi, Boardman.

“Bishop Murry was so very kind to all of us and bring us through it – unlike other places where it was like ripping a bandage off,” Berardi said.

Berardi and Okpara said Murry had the ability to connect with people, and the relationships he built during his 13-year stay at the diocese was what made him memorable.

“Whenever he came to you, you would think the whole world ends around you … it’s about you,” Okpara said. “He would give you all that attention. He made you feel special. That was him.”

Up until last year, Murry addressed challenges to the diocese created by declining Catholic affiliation and participation, as well as the retirement of priests.

In March 2019, the Catholic News Agency reported registered parishioners have declined 36% since 2000, and regular weekend Mass attendance was down by more than 60%. By 2025, the diocese estimated it would have 55 priests, down from 116 in 2000, it reported.

“Our priests have been stretched beyond what is healthy trying to maintain current parishes and Mass schedules,” Murry wrote in a March 22 letter to Catholics in the diocese. “Given the fewer number of priests and fewer number of active Catholics, we can no longer continue the status quo.”

The diocese planned to divide its six counties into 17 pastoral regions, each with multiple parishes, Catholic News Agency reported. Regions would recommend to the bishop best practices in celebrating Mass and collaborating among staff, programs, events and outreach efforts.

On June 8, the College of Consultors for the diocese elected the Very Rev. Monsignor Robert Siffrin as the diocesan administrator to oversee the diocese until the next bishop arrives. Ordained on June 23, 1979, Siffrin served under Murry as the vicar general and moderator of the curia. He is also administrator of St. Edward Parish.

It’s the first step toward filling the void left by Murry, said Monsignor John Zuraw, chancellor of the diocese. Zuraw said the process could take 12 to 18 months to collect recommendations from bishops and for Pope Francis to name a new bishop. 

“It’s going to be hard to adjust over the next several months, to not having his smiling face everyday in our offices,” Zuraw said.

Originally from Camden, N.J., Murry attended St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia and St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield, Conn., then earned a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy in 1972 from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Md.

He was ordained in June 1979 and became an assistant professor of American studies at Georgetown University in 1986, where he taught for four years. That year, he earned a Master of Divinity from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. In 1994, he earned a doctorate in American Cultural History from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

In January 1995, Pope John Paul II appointed Murry titular bishop of Fuerteventura and auxiliary bishop of Chicago, where he was consecrated bishop. He served as coadjutor bishop of Saint Thomas from 1998 to 2007 before becoming the fifth bishop of Youngstown.

Murray was a supporter for the Catholic Church, but also tackled social issues and was an advocate for racial equality. In 2018, the Catholic Church released its racism pastoral to address prejudice in the church. Murry, who was named chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, took time to call attention to the issue.

“He was supposed to chair the committee, but due to his first bout with leukemia, he was unable to fulfill that duty,” Zuraw said. “But he was a contributing member in writing the pastoral and making it what it is today.

“His input will continue for generations. It’s not going to end and it’s probably going to be one of his greatest legacies.”

A private funeral will take place today at 1 p.m., followed by Murry’s burial at Calvary Cemetery on S. Belle Vista Avenue. WKBN 27 will broadcast the Mass and live stream it on its mobile app and website. The diocese will also provide streaming coverage on its website.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.