You’d be hard pressed to find someone who knows more about change over time than Msgr. Richard Murray, the beloved founder of St. Bernardine of Siena in Woodland Hills.
After all, Murray, who celebrated his 100th birthday Sept. 11, was a newborn baby when gas in California was between 12 and 14 cents per gallon, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series led by a young rookie named Babe Ruth, and Pope Francis was still eight papal conclaves away.
But of all the change Msgr. Murray has witnessed in his life, perhaps the most drastic is that of St. Bernardine’s. What today is a large, vibrant campus featuring a breathtakingly beautiful church and adjacent K-8 school began as a dry, barren hillside when Murray, who was ordained in 1943, was assigned to establish the parish in 1962.
“There was nothing on the hillside but cactus and coyotes,” says the monsignor only half-jokingly of the parish’s very humble beginnings.
Luckily, with NASA having just put a man into space the previous year, the Valley was burgeoning with young engineers and like professionals. Msgr. Murray took full advantage, gathering a census from neighboring St. Mel’s and Our Lady of the Valley in order to seek out potential new parishioners, and then dividing the new members of the community into guilds and spiritual groups in order to help them get to know one another. “I was in the right place in the right time,” he says.
“It was a community of young people who were filled with enthusiasm. Any time I needed a volunteer, 10 would jump in. And it remains that way today. The growth of the community has been fantastic.”
Just as the St. Bernardine community was undergoing major developmental changes, so was the Catholic Church itself, as the Second Vatican Council issued a total restructuring of the Mass. The changes placed great emphasis on the laity becoming more involved, as the Mass would henceforth be celebrated in English instead of Latin, and the priest would face the congregation as opposed to the altar.
And like his approach to his new role as the pastor of St. Bernardine’s, Msgr. Murray embraced the changes wholeheartedly.
“I loved them,” he recalls of the Vatican II amendments to the Mass. “About three months after the changes, I was celebrating morning Mass in the chapel, and I thought ‘I’ll say one more Latin Mass, and that’s it.’”
Although Msgr. Murray loves the study of other languages, and actually taught both Latin and Greek at St. John’s Seminary in his first few years as a priest, “When that Mass was over, I didn’t feel good, because I felt I left the people out. One of the teachings of the Church is ‘the priesthood of the laity.’ Christ wants the Church to carry on the laity and the Gospel. So they (the laity) should be in the sanctuary, and they should be in the pulpit,” he points out.
Ever the people person, Msgr. Murray’s favorite aspect of his ministry has always been the opportunity it affords him to interact with the laity.
“I love to be among the people, during both their sorrows and their joys,” he explains. “I used to drive around, in my Mustang, and I’d visit shut-ins and the sick, and I still do sometimes. Christ loved to be among people. In the way he preached his canon, he was happy to be with people even when they were sick or dying or what have you. And that’s how I tried to model my priesthood: to be among the people in all of their stages.”
And the love Murray has for people is reciprocated in spades by St. Bernardine parishioners, staff and schoolchildren alike. Though he retired as head pastor of St. Bernardine’s in 1989, “The Mons,” as he is affectionately known within the community, still celebrates the 7 a.m. Mass every Sunday as well as occasional early morning weekday Masses, and remains very involved in the parish’s daily activities. Some things never change.