Sister’s life spans nearly a century

By on April 1, 2003

Sr. Constance, 99, has written her memoirs and large-type hymnals.

When Constance Murphy in 1930 attended the Passion Play, the world-famous dramatization in Oberammagau, Germany, of Christ’s crucifixion, she knew she was being drawn to a religious vocation.

“It was one of my strongest moves to sisterhood,” said the tiny, American-born nun, now Sister Constance, a member of the Sisters of St. John the Divine in Toronto who recently celebrated her 99th birthday.

It is remarkable enough to consider that one person’s life may encompass a century of history, but Sr. Constance’s years cover two nations, a remarkable American family by birth and a Canadian community by choice.

Born in Baltimore on Feb. 2, 1904, Sr. Constance was raised in an African-American family of noted accomplishment. Her paternal grandfather, John H. Murphy Sr., was the founder and editor of The Afro-American, a pioneering black newspaper; her maternal grandfather, James Hughes, was a well-known caterer. Since her grandfather catered major white functions, Sr. Constance recalled, “We walked in two worlds.” The racial prejudice of the time is an uncomfortable subject for Sr. Constance. “If anything happened, we just settled it. We didn’t talk a lot about that kind of thing and I don’t like to talk about it. We had white friends and black friends,” she recalled.

Her father, George B. Murphy, was the principal of the largest black elementary school in Baltimore, and education was a strong point with the family. One of her father’s cousins was the first African American woman to earn a PhD from Radcliffe College. “We had 13 schoolteachers in the family,” she said. Sr. Constance earned her bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania in 1928.

In Baltimore in 1932, she attended a presentation on the Sisters of St. John the Divine, an Anglican order of nuns based in Canada, traveled north and entered the order in 1936. “It would never have been possible for me to be a sister in Baltimore. To state it bluntly, my whole family just didn’t want me to be a sister,” she wrote in her 1997 memoirs, Other Little Ships.

In 1938, she was sent to teach at the Qu’Appelle Diocesan School, an Anglican girls boarding school in Regina. She rose to the position of headmistress, returning to the Toronto convent in 1955. In 1958, Sr. Constance began her second career when she was named administrator of the Church Home for the Aged in Toronto, a position she held until 1972. She spoke and wrote about the concerns of aging and, in 1976, earned a masters degree from the University of Michigan in adult education and a certificate in gerontology. She has been the recipient of many honours and recently co-authored several books of prayers and hymns in large print.

Four years ago, at the age of 95, she visited the Holy Land and last February, friends threw her a 99th birthday party at the convent’s parish church, Church of the Annunciation. Through the years, she has become known for her distinctive appearance, since she continues to wear the traditional black habit. “I like the full habit. I feel very comfortable in it and I expect to be buried in it,” she said.

Looking back at her life in her memoirs, she noted, “I was then, and still am, I think, not just a doer, but a doer about something.”

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  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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