After two decades of providing Gospel message, prison ministry director retires

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Deacon Peter Murphy is retiring after 23 years of ministering to incarcerated men, women and teenagers in the Diocese of Phoenix. (Joyce Coronel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Deacon Peter Murphy is retiring after 23 years of ministering to incarcerated men, women and teenagers in the Diocese of Phoenix. (Joyce Coronel/CATHOLIC SUN)

When Deacon Peter Murphy was ordained in 1989, he had no idea two years later he would be in charge of the largest parish in the diocese – prison ministry.

After 22 years as the director of Catholic ministries to prisons and jails, his unmistakable booming-British-accented voice will be missing.

Deacon Murphy is retiring.

“It’s been a beautiful ministry,” he said. “I hope the little progress I made will be a foundation for whoever takes over.”

Big Band music initially attracted Deacon Murphy and his wife, Estelle, from across the pond to the United States 40 years ago.

Just “off the boat” from the United Kingdom, he said they struggled because of his unemployment.

The couple eventually settled into life in Tolleson with their three sons. Deacon Murphy landed a job playing the baritone saxophone with a Valley band for 20 years, which was featured at the Phoenix Arizona Country Club.

Following his ordination into the diaconate, Deacon Murphy was assigned to St. Gregory Parish for two years, but an old Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?” kept popping into his head.

Not particularly enamored with parish duties, it was someone in the clergy who told him to look into prison ministry.

“No way. If you do the crime, you can do the time. I don’t care,” Deacon Murphy recalled saying.

His attitude quickly adjusted.

“I went and really felt it was a ministry for me,” Deacon Murphy said. “I feel that if you want men or women to get some spiritual lesson, you have to do it; you have to spend the time.”

And so it began, a journey of faith filled with Gospel messages and personal conversations shared with the most loathsome people.

People, men and women, who needed most what Deacon Murphy was willing to give: the ear of his heart.

During his tenure, the 70-year-old expatriate expanded outreach from county jails to state and federal prisons and juvenile facilities.

A good chunk of ministry is done in the county jail, which has over 10,000 inmates alone.

Primarily, his office provides Liturgy of the Word with Eucharist to men and women incarcerated in minimum, medium and maximum security locations.

It’s 10,000 inmates multiplied several times, which could be upwards of 150,000, that Deacon Murphy and his loyal volunteers encounter in his parish of prison fences.

He has found throughout the years that, in general, men in the county jail are spiritually introverted whereas the women will greet him by name, wave their arms and pour out their hearts during the prayers of the faithful.

“I thought I was inadequate to do the job because you can’t relieve the pain,” Deacon Murphy said, “but they remember you, and they remember what you’ve done for them.”

Kevin Starrs, who was appointed Feb. 13 to replace Deacon Murphy, has been working by his side the past 16 years.

“God touched his heart. He has compassion for prisoners and the desire to bring them hope,” Starrs said. “In this ministry, wherever we go, there is pain. Peter was always there for me, encouraging me and supporting my ideas. I feel so blessed. Some people go through their whole lifetime and don’t have a relationship like that.”

Ty and Gloria Tirone, parishioners of St. Anne Parish in Gilbert, decided to embrace the corporal works of mercy when they began volunteering for the ministry seven years ago.

“We see such beautiful success from it and actually witness hearts turning,” Gloria said.

Under the guidance of Deacon Murphy, the couple delved feet-first into the ministry that takes them to Perryville prison in Goodyear, Estrella women’s jail and to juvenile centers throughout Maricopa County.

“Deacon Murphy was always concerned about us as ministers. He never wanted us to burn out,” Ty said. “He knew how to run this ministry and we’re really going to miss him.”

Deacon Murphy already has plans for retirement: to travel the Untied States because, he said, “I want to see some rain. I miss it.”

And he’s dusting off a clarinet he used to play to start practicing again.

“I want to volunteer as an elementary school music teacher,” he said. “It will be fun to teach the little children to play music.

Gina Keating has been a freelance writer for The Catholic Sun since 1995. A convert to the faith, she began her journey while attending the University of Arizona. She works in children’s ministry/sacramental preparation at St. Theresa Parish, where she is also a member of Boy Scout Troop 147. She and her husband, Thomas, have four children and a granddaughter.

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