Any expert on the subject of aging who lived to 109 surely must have done something right. Sister Constance Murphy, a kinetic Anglican nun and gerontologist who died at that grand age last month in the infirmary of the Toronto convent she inhabited for eight decades, once boiled it all down to 10 sensible “statements.”
First, aging “is normal. God-given.” Second, you’re more likely to achieve “good aging” if you’ve picked the right grandparents. Unsurprisingly, the rest of her tenets were religious in nature, but one – we grow more like ourselves as we age, and you can teach an old dog new tricks. “Lots of them.”
She was Canada’s oldest nun at the time of her death on Aug. 2, a teacher, author and authority on the elderly who believed that as a person of God, she had a job to do, said her great-grandniece Savera Hayat-Dade, “and that she would be here as long as God wanted her to be here and do something. From what I understand, she never really thought of herself as an old person. When she was in her late 90s, she was visiting ‘old people’ and finding ways to help them.”
In a calling that spanned the better part of the 20th century, Sister Murphy escaped the racial segregation of her native United States to find a spiritual home in Canada. She was a nun for longer than many people live – 77 years – and was certainly the longest surviving member of her religious community, the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine. She was 73 when she earned a master’s degree in adult education, with a certificate in gerontology, from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
A whirlwind of energy and vigour constantly zipping from one appointment to the next, often on her beloved bicycle, she could be hardheaded about slowing down. After she broke a bone in her foot in her late 90s, her fellow nuns insisted she be driven to her ministrations to the elderly and not take the subway or bus alone, recounted her long-time friend, Sister Elizabeth Ann Eckert. “She was almost 100 when they took her bicycle away from her,” said Ms. Hayat-Dade.
Although Sister Murphy was a serious woman, especially when it came to confronting and countering ageism, she had a playful side. “I do enjoy life,” she told the Canadian Churchman newspaper in 1977. “And I’m just going to go on. Seize the day, that’s my motto.”
Constance Elizabeth Murphy was born in Baltimore when Theodore Roosevelt was president, on Feb. 2, 1904, the third of seven children of Grace Hughes and George Murphy, a school principal. She liked to remind people that her birthday was not only Groundhog Day but also the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, known as Candlemas. She was nicknamed “the Fire Baby” after a great blaze tore through her parents’ neighbourhood when she was five days old, but spared their home.
Her paternal grandfather was John Henry Murphy, a former slave who, in 1892, founded The Afro-American, a widely read newspaper that professed reconciliation and peace. Known as The Afro, it circulates to this day in several U.S. cities.
Faith pervaded the family and black community in Baltimore: there were Episcopalians, Methodists and Presbyterians, and the clan was “no-nonsense, correct, [and] church-attending,” Sister Murphy recounted in her memoirs, Other Little Ships (the title taken from the Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus rebuked the winds and calmed a storm).
Despite the intensely spiritual environment, there was no talk of her entering a religious vocation. “To state it bluntly,” she wrote, “my whole family just didn’t want me to be a Sister. The Holy Spirit, however, was leading me in that direction.”
Electing not to go into the family’s newspaper business, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1928 – considered bold for a black woman – and taught algebra in Baltimore for four years, interspersed with travel in Europe with her older sister. Witnessing the Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany in 1930 was life-altering; so were the chilling stirrings of Nazism.
Back home, she made up her mind to enter the religious life, but segregation prevented her from joining Baltimore’s All Saints Sisters of the Poor (she omitted the subject of race in her memoirs, and indeed her life, supporting the view that she never harboured any bitterness). Instead, she came north to Toronto, and was admitted to the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine in January, 1933, in the middle of a flu epidemic at the convent.
She became a nun in 1936, spent a year north of Toronto teaching developmentally challenged children, then was sent to teach at the Qu’Appelle Diocesan School in Regina. One boarder there who would go on to become a nun herself later recalled that Sister Murphy was the first black person she had ever met, apart from sleeping-car porters on the railway.
Sister Murphy rose to the position of headmistress at the school, returning to the Toronto convent in 1955. She was named sister-in-charge of the Church Home for the Aged in Toronto in 1958, a position she held for the next 14 years.
She continued her work with the aged as diocesan co-ordinator for work with the elderly and as chair of the diocesan committee on aging. She was also a Canadian observer at the once-a-decade White House Conference on Aging in 1971 and 1981.
The most important thing senior citizens could do, she believed, was to try new things and stay active – physically, mentally and spiritually. “They must use their strength to fight the picture that an elderly person is a non-person … the elderly should use all that they have gained through experience,” she told the Canadian Churchman in 1977. “Second or even third careers can be taken by old people, through volunteer work or through higher education.”
As one of the founders of the Canadian Institute of Religion and Gerontology in 1975, she helped produce a book of prayers in large print and began a ministry of pastoral visits to shut-ins and nursing homes, always studying the people she visited. She herself was the subject of examination in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, America’s longest-running scientific study of human aging, begun in 1958. According to her wishes, Sister Murphy donated her brain to the study.
She also helped found St. Hilda’s Towers, a non-profit Toronto seniors’ residence rooted in the Anglican Church. “She came in and spent time telling me all the things she felt were wrong with the place,” recalled Rev. Derwyn Shea, rector at St. Hilda’s Towers. “And she went at it for quite some time, and quite vehemently. I finally stopped her after a half-hour outburst to say, ‘Now my dear sister, keep in mind, I respect your Irish genes, but you’re talking to an Irishman.’ ”
She was fuelled by a simple question, Canon Shea noted: How can it be ensured that people who have very modest incomes, or no incomes, are properly cared for with respect and dignity? How does one provide services in the not-for-profit sector that equal, even surpass, those in the private sector?
Despite the rocky start, the two established a fine relationship. “She was just a jewel when it came to dealing with all the issues involving seniors,” said Canon Shea. “She was furious with society’s indifference to the issue of ageism. Very little effort had gone into ageism to this point in time, [and] she was always a strong advocate. She understood aging.”
Today, Sister Murphy’s fingerprints can be found on all church policy on aging, he said.
The recipient of a slew of awards, honours and recognitions, she was 105 when President Barack Obama paid her tribute as the oldest American in Canada. The U.S. ambassador at the time, David Jacobson, presented her with a personal letter of congratulations from the President. Her reaction, he recalled, was: “Whose idea was this?”
At the same time, Sister Murphy renewed her U.S. passport. “As far as I was concerned,” Mr. Jacobson said with a chuckle, “that was the definition of hope.”