Father Michael Murray SJ was a beloved man of the people

The late Father Michael Murray SJ.

PICKERING – Those individuals leave a lasting mark upon the Manitoulin landscape as they pass through this life are rare, rarer still are those whose passage leaves all those in its wake recalling their interactions with a universally positive feeling of love and affection. Such a man was Father Mike Murray, who began his spirit journey on May 18, 2020 at the Ajax Pickering Hospital. Pandemics are not fair, and although he was rallying well from a health setback a couple of years ago, COVID-19 proved a challenge he was unable to overcome.

Father Mike, as he was affectionately called by those who knew him, was in his 83rd year, 65 of those years spent as a member of the Jesuit order. Born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, the son of Bernard W. Murray and Kathleen Campbell, Father Mike entered the Society of Jesus at Guelph on August 14, 1957, and went on to pronounce first vows two years later almost to the day on August 15, 1959. 

Spending a year of juniorate he journeyed in 1960 to Mount St. Michael’s in Spokane to study philosophy and then went on to spend half a year at Laval University in Quebec City before beginning a three-year regency in 1963 at Loyola High School in Montreal. His theology studies began in earnest in 1966 at Regis College in Willowdale and he went on to be ordained on May 30, 1970.

The young priest was then assigned to Holy Cross Mission in Wiikwemkoong and in 1972, as part of a team of Indigenous elders, Jesuits and sisters, he offered a training program for the Native diaconate, conducting prayer days and forming a ministering community. Many of those individuals were later ordained as deacons or permanently mandated to the Diocesan Order of Service (DOS), a uniquely Indigenous female but similar role.

The program was “inspired by the vision of Vatican II, the Jesuits decided to encourage Native people to direct their own church,” notes a memorial note on the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre website. “In 1972 Michael Murray SJ, Dan Hannin SJ, James Farrell SJ and Lawrence Kroker SJ began a training program for the deaconate. Supported completely by Bishop Alexander Carter, a Vatican II Council Father, the Native deaconate program started with a resource team moving from village to village once a month for weekend workshops. Sisters Patricia Hassett CSJ and Dorothy Regan CSJ were key support members of the team. These sessions covered scripture, theology and the pastoral practice of ministry. This itinerant leadership program functioned from 1972-1979.”

“He was such an outgoing man,” said Rosemary Wassegijig, who knew him best in a completely different capacity. “I was very much into dance,” she recalled. “He brought together a bunch of kids.” Through him she discovered clogging, but also square dancing and other and quite varied dance forms. “Even disco,” laughed Ms. Wassegijig. “He loved to dance and he loved sports.”

Father Mike served as the first director of the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre from 1980 to 1985, a facility he was instrumental in designing along  with Immaculate Conception, the unique round church in M’Chigeeng famed for its incorporation of Indigenous spirituality and forms.

“He was a wonderful man,” said Susan Bebamash of M’Chigeeng, who along with her husband Gene became close friends with the Jesuit during his many years on the Island. 

“He really loved the outdoors,” Gene Bebamash recalled, who helped Father Mike build a log cabin retreat in Square Bay. “He loved kayaking, canoeing, fishing and snowmobiling. We travelled down south to Seneca College to learn about log cabin building. He’d say ‘come on, Gene, let’s go,’ and off we went. He was a real go-getter.”

“We knew him quite well—we spent quite a bit of time with Father Mike,” said Melvina Corbiere. “He was such a different kind of priest. So down to earth, a real part of the community. He would talk to the people about regular things—never ‘preaching’—he would bring the Gospel into people’s lives through examples they could understand from their own lives. He brought people together.”

It was as he was serving at Immaculate Conception that Father Mike nearly became a casualty of Island history, narrowly missing a massive propane explosion that engulfed the then newly-built church, killing a young school teacher, John Roberts, who was living in the attached manse at the time.

“Father Mike was at a hockey game in Wiikwemkoong and there was a terrible ice storm that evening, so he couldn’t make it back home,” recalled Mr. Bebamash. “If he had been able to get home that night, he probably would have died too.”

God, it seems, had other plans for Father Mike, who went on to help design the new church, as well as the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre outside Espanola and another church, Blessed Kateri in Blind River.

From 1986-89 Father Mike served as the Director of Missions Canada (English sector) for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and from 1989 to 1997 he took up once again the role of Director of the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre. He moved to Thunder Bay in 1998 to direct St. Anne’s Parish and Choné House and, besides his routine parish ministry and duties, Father Mike served as Superior of the Thunder Bay Mission.

Like many priests of his missionary order, Father Mike did move around quite a bit through his career, but his last major move took him around full circle, back to his native Québec. By 2010 he was appointed president of Loyola High School in Montreal and also served as superior of that community. He moved into Villa Saint-Martin in 2018 and became part of the retreat team there. Unfortunately, in October 2018 Father Mike suffered “a disastrous fall” in the basement of the Loyola Residence which left him partially paralyzed. He was transferred to René Goupil House at Pickering in November 2019 to continue his recuperation. He continued to improve until the arrival of the COVID-19 virus. It hit him hard. After receiving the sacraments of the church, Father Mike died peacefully in the Ajax Pickering Hospital.

Father Mike was known as a consummate storyteller, an incredibly accomplished man filled with the wisdom of faith and possessed of a profound trust in the human heart—these are themes repeated without fail when talking to those who knew him best.

“Father Mike spoke our language,” said Ms. Corbiere. “Not Ojibwe,” she laughed, “but the language of the people nonetheless—even occasionally a few cuss words.”

Father Mike Murray’s funeral mass was live-streamed on YouTube at 2 pm on Saturday, June 6. Expressions of sympathy or a donation may be made to the Jesuit Advancement Office, 43 Queen’s Park Cres. E., Toronto, ON M5S 2C3, 416-481-9154.