by Lou Mancinelli
Four years ago, after working for almost 30 years as an analytical chemist at institutions like Johns Hopkins and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Constance Murphy left her research behind and eventually became Sister Constance Murphy, SSJ, Ph.D, a member of the Sisters of Saint Joseph’s congregation and resident of the Mount St. Joseph Convent on the grounds of Chestnut Hill College.
Despite a rewarding career that included a teaching position at the University of Maryland, being a staff scientist for NIH, a post-doctoral research fellow at Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia, author of 32 scientific papers and winner of numerous awards and honors, Murphy felt it was time for a change.
It was 2007, and Murphy, a former staff scientist at the NIH, who left a year earlier due to federal budget belt-tightening, was working in the private sector researching methods to combat airborne biological warfare, like anthrax. But as she worked in her labs, the sentiment that she “had done everything [she] wanted to do” with research continued to dominate her thinking. She felt that part of her life had reached its final chapter.
“I felt like I was losing my passion for it,” said Sister Murphy, who is now 52. So she made sure her finances could sustain her until she figured out what it was she wanted to do, and she quit her job in the private sector. “It wasn’t like I quit my job to join the convent. In deciding what I wanted to do next, as one thing led to another, I came to the convent.”
The decision might not be such a radical departure, given Murphy’s past. She was raised in northeastern Ohio near Akron, in a town named Barberton. She attended Catholic schools through high school graduation. “I was educated by the Dominicans,” said Murphy. “From day one, they taught evolution alongside creation. I’ve never had the split between science and religion.”
In 1980, she graduated from Wittenburg University, a Lutheran-affiliated school in Springfield, Ohio, with a degree in chemistry. After graduation, she moved to Baltimore, where she worked for the Food and Drug Administration.
After working at Johns Hopkins University, in the late ‘80s, Murphy enrolled in the University of Maryland (UM) as a chemistry doctoral candidate. She maintained a full-time job working in labs at the UM, while taking graduate classes, until the last year when her work as a teacher’s assistant and researcher prevented her from continuing the lab work.
“They were long days and long nights,” she recalled.
After earning her Ph.D in 1995, she completed a 14-month fellowship in Sweden at the University of Gothenburg, where she worked in the clinical psychology department assisting psychologists in their research of schizophrenia.
She continued to work in the Baltimore and Washington region, and at the turn of the century, began to get more involved with volunteer work at her church, The Catholic Community of South Baltimore. She had always been active in the church, participating in the parish council. But as the 21st century began to crawl through its baby years, Murphy’s inquiries started to expand beyond science and into the realm of God and theology.
“I wanted more information, and because of the way I learn, I decided to go to school.”
In 2001 she enrolled in St. Mary’s Seminary and University, the nation’s first Catholic seminary, in Baltimore. In 2005 she graduated with a master’s degree in theology, studying at night and researching the fundamental building blocks of the world during the day.
“I think that’s when I started to feel like I was getting more out of the volunteer work than the other job,” said Murphy.
Also in 2005, Murphy felt she needed a retreat, somewhere to pray and reflect. Because she knew the Sisters of Saint Joseph, who had a convent in her Baltimore neighborhood, from her volunteer work with the church, she asked the nuns to recommend a place for her to go for retreat. They recommended St. Mary by the Sea, their retreat house in Cape May, New Jersey.
Every year after that, Murphy would make a retreat for eight days. She would find somewhere quiet to think about things, to reflect and to pray. That retreat took on a new meaning in 2007, after she had quit her job.
“I got the feeling I should enter the convent,” said Murphy. “At first, I didn’t want to. There were other things I wanted to do and things I liked doing … I owned a home, had friends, there were men in my life. I was not a young person. I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing for me to do.”
She contemplated the idea for six months. She discussed it with friends who told her, if she felt strongly about it, she should follow her gut. In 2008, at age 49, she filled her out official papers to become a Sister of Saint Josephs. This past June, she made her first profession of vows and stood before her family, friends, Sisters and before God to pledge “chastity, poverty and obedience.”
The Sisters of Saint Joseph were founded in 1650 in France amid war- ravaged conditions. Its mission is rooted in the idea of unity, and historically, their work has focused on assisting women. More than 80 years ago, the SSJ founded Chestnut Hill College. Her fellow Sister, Carol Jean Vale, SSJ, Ph.D, is the president of the college.
In order so that she may “stand shoulder to shoulder with the poor,” Murphy will leave for a six-month mission in Haiti this September. In Haiti, she’ll work with sisters from the order Religious of Jesus and Mary to plant mango trees and to help with education and other humanitarian efforts in Port-au-Prince and two rural locations.
“I see evolution and all scientific wonder as a gift from God,” said Murphy. “As a scientist I can pick things apart and see how things work, but I can never get it 100 percent right. That mystery, the part you can’t find, is God.”
For more information about the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia, visit www.ssjphila.org.
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