For Rev. Tom Murphy, leaving both his hometown of Jersey City and the Church of St. Paul and Incarnation will be bittersweet.
This Sunday will be his last service at the Episcopal church, where he served as rector for the past eight years, before beginning his new assignment at St. Thomas in Owings Mills, Md., on July 1.
The social justice-minded priest, known to parishioners and community members as “Father Tom,” said now is the right time in his life and career for a move. Through the many leadership changes over the parish’s 160-year history, he said, “the essence of the church remains the same.”
Murphy has been associated with the church for more than 20 years, first as a parishioner and, since 2013, as its rector. The church was known as St. Paul’s in Bergen when Murphy began his leadership, and is now merged with the Church of the Incarnation, a church formed early in the 20th Century when “Black Americans were not welcome at other Episcopal churches including St Paul’s,” Murphy said.
Despite the history, Murphy said bringing the two churches together happened organically. He alternated preaching at evening services at the church located on Storms Avenue, just blocks away from St. Paul’s, with Rev. Laurie Wurm, rector of Grace Church Van Vorst, and a relationship developed between the congregations.
Incarnation parishioners eventually voted to merge with St. Paul’s. The now-combined congregation, which Murphy said is almost as diverse as Jersey City itself, reflects on the roles played by racism and white supremacy in the Episcopal church through a research and interview project called “Lifting Our Voices.”
According to those who know him well, Murphy’s day-to-day presence is marked by a willingness to serve members who need help and by sermons in which he links scripture readings to current events and sprinkles in self-deprecating humor.
“You could call him anytime,” said senior lay leader Belinda Stokes. “Whatever the need was, he would do it or find a way to get it done and not publicize it.”
From Mid-march of last year until this month, Murphy’s sermons were live-streamed on the congregation’s Facebook page due to COVID-19 safety precautions and in “church-by-phone” services during the pandemic, parishioners could call in during the week for 10 minutes of scripture readings, prayers and friendly chatter.
“Whenever there is a shooting in Jersey City, Father Tom always includes the person’s name, age, and the incident location in his prayers, whether it’s the Sunday service or the church-by-phone prayers on weekdays,” said parishioner Bill Armbruster. “That’s his way of reminding the congregation that the victims aren’t just numbers, but real people.”
Minister of Music Gail Blache-Gill said she appreciates being encouraged to bring styles as varied as Carribean, gospel and classical into services.
Murphy’s community outreach efforts have included providing monthly “Stone Soup Suppers,” where members of the community could come for a free meal, no questions asked and, together with Wurm, starting the Triangle Park Community Center three years ago for residents of the city’s Greenville section.
“It’s a long neglected neighborhood sort of tucked away and easy to miss,” Murphy said.
“When I first met Father Tom in 2018, my assumptions were shattered from the first contact,” said Triangle Park Community Center Director Monica Shaw. “I thought I was going to meet another stuffy shirt, but instead I received a steady force of love, compassion and guidance at every turn.”
“At one point I thought I would throw in the towel. It was at that very moment that I saw a breakthrough in the work I was doing at TPCC,” she said. “Without any words spoken by Father Tom I felt his energy guiding me to keep steady and stay the course.”
Also meaningful to Murphy was serving as a leader of Jersey City Together, an advocacy group of congregations and non-profit organizations. He remembers the change in parishioners when they learned about advocating for better living conditions in apartment buildings.
“They realized they were not, in fact, powerless,” he said.
Murphy shared his sermon following the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol with Jersey City Times.
Until an interim successor comes on board by Sept. 1, visiting priests will conduct the Sunday service at the Church of St. Paul and Incarnation. Murphy and his wife, Susan Suarez (pictured with him above), will be honored at the church’s third annual dinner dance at the Chandelier in Bayonne on Friday, June 25. Contact 201-433-4922 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.