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Principal Mary Murphy Carries a Heart for Catholic Education


By Sandra Heska King

Mary Murphy remembers the day in eighth-grade language arts class when she thought, “I wouldn’t do it that way.” And she began to plan a lesson in her head.

She carried that “moment of clarity” right out of Durand High School and into Aquinas College where she received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. A master’s in educational leadership from Grand Valley State followed.

Mary took her first teaching job at Godwin Heights Public Schools in Wyoming, MI. She taught fourth grade, kindergarten, and third-fourth multiage classes for nine years in this large urban multicultural setting.

She then worked as a K-6 literary specialist for three years when her husband’s career and the desire to raise their three children in a small town brought them to Houghton Lake. Her husband works as superintendent of Houghton Lake Public Schools.

Mary worked for a couple of years as a Response to Intervention Coordinator for Houghton Lake Public Schools until her grant contract ended.

But a new door was about to swing open. She didn’t know that her steps were leading her straight into Our Lady of the Lake School in Prudenville. There “just happened” to be teacher openings. She applied and was hired in fall of 2011.

Mary believes her path to Our Lady had “something to do with” her uncle and godfather, Father Bill McKenney, SJ. She and “Uncle Bill” had always been very close. He encouraged her throughout her growing-up years and deeply influenced her ministry and service focus. “He was my rock,” she says.

After his ordination in 1994, Father Bill served as president for Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He devoted his heart to the students and worked tirelessly to improve their educational experience. He tried to convince her to come out and teach with him. However, she married right out of college, and it never worked out. But he and Mary often discussed the similar struggles that challenged their students.

Just weeks after this school year started, Mary was asked to take on the role of principal at Our Lady of the Lake in addition to her teaching responsibilities. She hesitated. But then had another “moment of clarity” when she realized that she was called to this place at this time—and that she had the gifts to serve in that capacity.

And so she accepted.

Mary says the most fun part of being principal of a small school is the ability to know every student’s name. She loves when her schedule allows her to greet them personally in the mornings.

Her favorite part of the day is morning prayer. “No matter what happens before school,” she says, “when you start your day with prayer, no day turns out bad.” The students inspire her in how they so openly share their faith.

The most surprising thing about Our Lady, she says, is how much the school relies on volunteers and how many are willing to invest so much of their time. The school even has several nonpaid staff members, including retired teachers who teach half days.

Mary says she learned from her own first grade public school teacher that it’s possible to be firm and loving at the same time. She believes that her students would say she pushes, but also that she cares.

Mary refuels on the weekends by slipping into sweatpants and watching at least one of her children play sports.

Her favorite scripture, and the one that guides her in her work, is 1 Peter 4:10-11.

“As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God's varied grace. Whoever preaches, let it be with the words of God; whoever serves, let it be with the strength that God supplies, so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

She says it also reminds her of her Uncle Bill.

Father Bill died suddenly 14 years ago at the age of only 39 from a massive heart attack. But Mary continues to carry his heart into her work and ministry and says she feels his presence and pleasure each day.

She says she sometimes thinks she hears him laugh and say, “See? You didn’t come teach for me, but I knew I’d get you into a Catholic school eventually.”

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