Margaret Mary Healy Murphy was founder of the first congregation of nuns in Texas with the mission of serving the ‘poor and dark races’. She was born on May 4th, 1833 to Dr. Richard and Jane Healy in Cahersiveen. She emigrated with her father and two brothers to America, on the death of her mother, on May 4th, 1839. The youngest girl, Jeannie, was left to be raised by relatives. They settled first in West Virginia. Her father died when moving the family to Texas. The family, Margaret, two aunts, two uncles, two brothers continued to Matamoros in Mexico. From 1846-1850, Margaret helped her two aunts in operating a hotel in Matamoros. One of her uncles was shot dead in front of the hotel and the remaining uncle along with her two brothers, continued to California in search of gold.
Margaret Mary met John Bernard Murphy, born in Mallow, Co. Cork in 1821 and they married on May 4th, 1849 when she was just 16 years. John B. had been a volunteer in the American Army of General Zachary Taylor in the Mexican War of 1846-48. On leaving the army, he set up a business in Matamors where he met Margaret. In 1850, they moved to Texas where they purchased a ranch at San Patricio, a town which was founded in 1829 by 200 Irish Catholic families from New York. During the Civil War, 1861-1865, John Bernard enlisted in Davis’s First Texas Cavalry on the Union side. After the war, they leased the ranch and moved to Corpus Christ where JB practiced law and oversaw his various business interests. He had studied law with the future Texas governor, Edmund J. Davis. John Bernard and Margaret Mary were both devout Catholics. Margaret Mary ministered to the many victims when yellow fever broke out in Corpus Christi in 1867. They adopted a homeless Hispanic girl, Delphine and Minnie, the daughter of a friend who died. Later they also adopted a niece of John Bernard. They had no children of their own but two of the adopted girls later become nuns.
In 1873, three Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, a Belgian Order established in 1819, arrived in Waco in Texas to assist the local Bishop in pastoral and educational work. One of the Sisters was Sister Angela, Margaret Mary’s sister Jeannie who had been left behind in Ireland when the Healy family emigrated to America.
In 1875, Margaret Mary and three friends purchased a centre for the homeless that later became known as ‘Mrs. Murphy’s Hospital for the Poor’. All were welcomed regardless of creed or colour. John Bernard supported his wife in her charitable work in San Patricio and Corpus Christi.
John Bernard, judge, member of the Texas First Constitutional Convention and Mayor of Corpus Christ (1880-1884), died and Margaret Mary moved to San Antonio. Margaret Mary was determined to use her husband’s wealth to help the poor. In 1887, the Catholic Bishops of America sent a letter to all Catholics requesting that they respond to the pastoral and educational needs of the African-American population. After Emancipation, they had been abandoned, no longer having the minimal sustenance once provided to them as slaves by their former owners. Margaret Mary responded to the Bishop’s call and began to construct the first Catholic Church, convent and school for African-Americans, the Saint Peter Claver Mission in San Antonio, Texas. Margaret Mary sold part of her ranch, Mount Echo for $20,000 to finance the project. Saint Peter Claver was a 17th century Spanish priest who taught African slaves in Lisbon, Portugal. He was canonised in 1888 by Pope Leo XIII, the Pope who had given approval for the building of the Daniel O’Connell Memorial Church. Many opposed her efforts for ‘those’ people and she suffered sustained criticism, intimidation, prejudice, persecution and a shortage of dedicated teachers for the audacity of opening two free schools for 500 African-American pupils.
On the 6th June 1892, Margaret Mary, on the advice of her Bishop, set up the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Ghost later to be called the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate. The Order was the first community to develop in Texas. Mother Margaret Mary returned to Ireland in 1896 for the first time in over fifty years after her first voyage across the Atlantic as a young girl. Several more trips followed over the years to recruit Irish girls to the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit. Each time she returned with young women who wished to help fulfill her vision. St. Peter Claver School flourished and became a well-known prestigious academy for young African-American students. At the age of 74, Margaret Mary died in St.Peter Claver Convent, San Antonio, on 25th August 1907, leaving the Order well established in Texas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississipi. Today the Order is still deeply involved in pastoral and educational work with African-Americans in many Southern states, Mexico and even Zambia.
On 25th July 1993, Sr. Anne Finnerty unveiled a plaque commemorating Margaret Mary Healy Murphy in the Daniel O’Connell Memorial Church of the Holy Cross, Cahersiveen. It is also important to recall that not only was Margaret Mary a lifelong race activist, she was a relation of Daniel O’Connell who believed in achieving equality and human rights through peaceful means. He also rejected anti-Semitism and slavery. In Parliament in 1829, Daniel O’Connell rejected slavery and in 1833, he helped to implement the Slave Emancipation Act. His ideas must have sailed to America with Margaret Mary. Daniel, the Liberator would have been very proud of the work of his relation among the ‘disadvantaged poor and dark races’. The school established by Margaret Mary in San Antonio, was renamed after desegregation in the 1970s and is now called the Healy-Murphy Centre and caters to ‘at-risk’ teenagers. The people of Cahersiveen take pride in this amazing history of the dedicated work of Mother Margaret Mary, a native daughter, and the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate.
Follow this link to read more about the Healy Murphy Centre in San Antonio.