Fr. Kevin Murphy is back in El Salvador, the place he called home for eight years, but you can be almost certain he is not traveling through the countryside in the way he was forced to some 38 years ago.
Instead of riding in the backseat of a vehicle, crouched on the floor in fear of being seen, this trip the 79-year-old Benedictine who lives at St. Benedict Abbey in Benet Lake, can leisurely travel the country, gazing out the car windows.
Fr. Murphy no longer has to fear retribution from the Salvadoran death squads, the same assassins who took the lives of his friends and partners in ministry, Salvadoran Jesuit Fr. Rutilio Grande and Archbishop Oscar A. Romero, who was beatified in a ceremony in El Salvador last Saturday, May 23.
Soon after the announcement was made in March that his former archbishop was to be beatified, Fr. Murphy began making travel plans to be there for the momentous event years in the making.
El Salvador was Fr. Murphy’s third overseas assignment. After his ordination in 1962, he spent time in Mexico and Costa Rica before being sent to Ayutuxtepeque, El Salvador, an urban area in the central part of the country.
“When I first got there, it was nice,” he said in a telephone interview with the Catholic Herald, “but increasingly, things got worse and worse. The campesinos in the farmland wanted to start a union – a sindicato, union syndicate – but the wealthy said, ‘over our dead bodies,’” he said, describing how the killings began.
As a priest at an urban parish, Fr. Murphy said he was not in the heart of the trouble, but he recalled how he regularly met with about a dozen fellow priests – including Fr. Grande and Archbishop Romero (then an auxiliary bishop) – for meetings at which he would hear stories about the terror occurring in the rural areas.
Bishop Romero became Archbishop Romero in a quiet ceremony on Feb. 3, 1977, about the time Fr. Murphy said he was forced to leave the country.
His expulsion by the government came as a surprise to him, because he described himself as someone who did not engage in political activism, yet he also noted that Archbishop Romero himself was “inclined to be a little on the conservative side, yet deep down, he was fluent with social justice.”
Tensions were high in the country, and Fr. Murphy said, “I thought I might be killed any day. If I went to see friends at the university, I would be in the backseat on the floor because I did not know if someone was watching. I went from place to place on the floor,” he said.
Being told to leave was not easy, he admitted. “I wanted to stay. It came as a surprise because I was not an activist priest,” he said, describing how he was escorted to the airport by embassy personnel.
Within a week of Fr. Murphy’s departure, Fr. Grande, a teenage boy and an elderly man were brutally murdered on March 12, 1977.
The death of the Salvadoran priest, according to Fr. Murphy, moved Archbishop Romero to further speak out for justice for the poor.
Those turbulent times preceded the official start of the 1980-1992 Salvadoran civil war that left 70,000 dead and 8,000 missing.
Fr. Grande, a close friend of Archbishop Romero, left a position at the university to pastor the farmworkers and the poor.
The murder, according to Cardinal Angelo Amato, the prefect of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes in a May 22 Catholic News Service article, “was the event that touched the heart of Archbishop Romero, who mourned his priest like a mother would her own child.”
Even though he was forced to leave the country, Fr. Murphy watched the events unraveling in El Salvador from afar, appreciating how Archbishop Romero spoke out on behalf of the poor.
He was horrified to hear how on March 24, 1980 the archbishop was assassinated, while celebrating Mass in the chapel of Divine Providence Hospital in San Salvador.
Reflecting on his time in El Salvador, Fr. Murphy spoke about a few of his encounters with the martyred archbishop.
One day, a local man showed up at Fr. Murphy’s door, beaten and shaking. He said he had been tortured for the last several weeks at the hands of the military. Fr. Murphy paid the man’s taxi fee and, “I took him to see Fr. Romero, who was in charge of the Catholic newspaper at the time. He was shocked,” said Fr. Murphy recalling Archbishop Romero’s horror at seeing the beaten man. “This was new to him. I think he was stunned to meet a person who had just undergone a torture. I think I brought him the first person he had met who had been tortured,” he said, describing how at the time, Archbishop Romero was a recently appointed auxiliary bishop.
Another encounter Fr. Murphy recalled with Archbishop Romero occurred after the Jesuits had vacated a local seminary. Local priests wanted to take over the seminary, Fr. Murphy recalled, saying they thought the Jesuits were “too monastic.”
“The Jesuits went away and I went over there and tried cleaning up the library,” explained Fr. Murphy. “Most of the books had belonged to the Jesuits and they took them with them, but I went to start cleaning the shelves.”
As he cleaned, the new archbishop – Archbishop Romero – walked in on him and asked, ‘Fr. Kevin, what are you doing.’”
After Fr. Murphy explained he was trying to fix up the library, Archbishop Romero “just about jumped for joy and told me to ‘keep doing what you are doing.’”
Treasuring that encounter, Fr. Murphy continues to support the library. Over the years, he has raised thousands of dollars for the library, and has paid for new computers and a library cataloguing system.
Speaking to the Catholic Herald the week before his trip for the beatification, Fr. Murphy said he was looking forward to his return trip to El Salvador – his second since he was expelled in 1977. He knows the political climate has stabilized, but added that the country now has a problem with gang violence.
After El Salvador, he spent about four years in the Dominican Republic, three appointed to the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s sister parish, La Sagrada Familia, and a fourth working for the bishop in the area.
He continues to celebrate Masses in Spanish in the Delavan and Lake Geneva areas as well as in Mundelein, Illinois.
Anticipating his return to El Salvador, Fr. Murphy said he was looking forward to visiting the country that left such an impact on his life.
Beatification for Archbishop Romero, he said, is an honor that should have happened a long time ago.
“Romero was the voice of the voiceless,” he said, adding, “He was known to be a man of books, yet he had deep thoughts about social justice.”
If Fr. Murphy had his way, Fr. Grande would have been beatified along with Archbishop Romero.
“He and Rutilio, those two should be canonized together,” said Fr. Murphy. “Maybe Rutilio is a little more political, but he has been my ideal as a priest and he holds a special place in my heart. Anytime Rutilio spoke at a priest meeting, people would listen. He spoke with flowery language and people would listen.”
The sainthood cause for Fr. Grande was opened late last year.