Br. Gerald Francis Murray, age 90, passed away at the Wartburg Home Care Centre in Mt. Vernon, N.Y. early Friday morning, March 20, 2020. Fran had spent ten years or so ministering in Liberia, West Africa. He was born in New York City on September 9, 1929 and attended Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx. He entered the Congregation of Christian Brothers on September 13, 1945 in West Park, N.Y. Fran professed his final vows in 1955. He received a M.Ed. in Vocational Counselling in 1962 at Fordham University. He became a qualified Substance Abuse Counsellor in 1984, and had taught and ministered in counselling in a number of High Schools throughout North America before going to Africa.
In 1984 Fran volunteered to teach at Bishop Carroll High School in Yekepa, Liberia, our very first West African foundation, opened by the English Province in 1969. I am led to believe that his decision to go to Liberia was influenced by Br. Liguori Gillespie, who was then provincial of the English Province and later District Leader for the West African Region. Fran was 55 years old when he set out to West Africa. In 1989 civil war broke out in Liberia, led by rebel leader Charles Taylor. In 1992 the rebels entered Yekepa and many of the inhabitants headed for the bush or crossed over the nearby border into Ivory Coast, including Fran Murray and Gerald Columba Ross, who was also missioned in Yekepa at the time, and is presently a member of our Stellenbosch community in South Africa. Both Fran and Gerald, who had initially fled to Ivory Coast as refugees, did monumental work when they returned there later in teaching Liberian refugees. Their fellow community member Jim Catterson, who was principal at the time, headed for Sierra Leone, and Denis Walsh returned to the U.K. These were among the many courageous men who were pioneers in establishing our West African District.
Their war stories are included in Br. Nick Morris’ “The Emmaus Roads of West Africa: Our Story.” Nick had interviewed all the Brothers in West Africa in 2000 to record their war stories. Fran Murray had related to Nick why he and Gerald had returned to Ivory Coast: “When I got back to Yekepa, there was some discussion of the situation. The town was quiet but most of the locals were gone. All that was left were rebel soldiers and some displaced people. It was finally decided that Columba Ross and I should return to Danane, Ivory Coast, and see what possibly could be done for the Catholic Liberian Refugees.” Once in Ivory Coast, they teamed up with two Dutch Brothers of St. Louis, Joseph and David, and offered their services to teach in a school set up for Liberian Refugees in Danane, near the Liberian border. A good number of the refugees were their former students from Yekepa. In his narrative for Nick Morris in 2000, Gerald Ross commented that: “My time in West Africa was a very enriching experience. I felt that I had achieved much more than in any other place, but it was also the toughest mission I have had to date.”
About five years ago, while I was visiting our St. Joe’s Senior Residence Home in New Rochelle, Fran had asked me to drop down to his room after dinner. He showed me three large photo albums of his days in West Africa, with the dates and the locations indicated when and where the photos had been taken. It was so obvious to me how West Africa was still dear to his heart and we chatted for quite a while about stories of his days in Liberia during the war years. He was so happy to be able to talk about it with someone who was missioned in West Africa and I enjoyed very much meeting him. I again visited Fran at the Cabrini Nursing Home in 2018.
Fran would have been happy to know that many of his photos featured prominently at West Africa’s 50th Jubilee celebrations in December past. Br. Odongo Simon Peter, while he was at Iona, had scanned 70 of Fran’s photos and emailed them to me for the pictorial historical display. Because of the coronavirus pandemic that has hit New Rochelle and New York with a passion, there can be no wake or funeral Mass for Fran. Burial will be at the Christian Brothers Cemetery in West Park, N.Y. Fran is now with the God he had served so well for many years. As we bid farewell to Fran, who loved to tell stories, especially of his West African days, I am mindful of Ellie Wiesel’s conviction that “God made man because he loves stories.” I’d say God is getting his share of stories now. Rest in peace, Fran.
Note: the above three photos were taken from the Fran Murray collection.