The Rev. Frank J. Murray’s ordination as a Catholic priest on June 6, 1981, at St. John Catholic Church in Bangor was a community celebration.
The York Street church that he attended growing up was packed with well wishers.
Then-Gov. Joseph Brennan and U.S. Sen. George Mitchell attended along with members of the Maine Legislature, where Murray served before pursuing the priesthood.
Bishop Edward O’Leary of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland presided over the ordination, the first at St. John’s.
Murray’s retirement as pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Parish, effective Aug. 1, will be much more low key than his ordination due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Just 50 people will be allowed to attend each Mass and there will be no congratulatory handshakes or hugs.
Murray, 71, is stepping down as the Bangor-area parish’s administrator following a career that the Bangor native said has allowed him to form special connections with parishioners and lapsed Catholics across much of Maine, even as the public’s perception of the priesthood has changed.
He’s tried to maintain those connections during the coronavirus pandemic that put an end to in-person services from mid-March to early June.
During those months of live-streamed services, Murray also made robocalls to parishioners to check in with them.
He had always associated those calls with political campaigns.
“But I learned afterward how many people were pleased to hear from me and how it was helpful to hear my voice even if it wasn’t personal,” he said.
Murray, the second of five children, was baptized and confirmed at St. John’s. He attended the church school, now All Saints Catholic School, and graduated from John Bapst High School when it was run by the diocese before attending the University of Maine. In 1970, at the age of 21, he was elected to the Maine Legislature, the youngest person to serve at the time.
Becoming a priest crossed his mind while he was in college and in the Legislature but he did not seriously consider the idea until he lost a run for the state Senate in November 1974 and a bid for Secretary of State the next month by one vote, he said. After his stint in the Legislature, Murray took a teaching and coaching position at John Bapst before exploring whether he wanted to be a priest.
“One of the nice things about the Catholic priesthood is that they don’t ordain you right away,” he said. “You are able to try the formation process, and that gave me plenty of time to keep asking if I was on the right track. By the time ordination came around, it was clear that this was something that was very fulfilling and very aligned with who I am as a person.”
Murray entered the seminary at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., in fall 1977.
Robert “Buddy” Murray Jr., 61, of Bangor said friends and family weren’t surprised by his older brother’s decision to be a priest.
“Before entering the seminary, Frank’s pursuits had all involved various aspects of service to the community, and thus, his call to the priesthood was a natural next step,” said Buddy Murray, now a Superior Court justice and also a former legislator.
The priest’s first assignment was at Maine Medical Center in Portland. After six years there, he was assigned to the Newman Center in Orono at the University of Maine. In 1994, he moved to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Bangor and was with the congregation when it celebrated its 125th anniversary in 1997.
He also served churches in Auburn and Brunswick and on the Boothbay peninsula before being assigned in 2016 to St. Paul the Apostle Parish, made up of six churches in Bangor, Brewer, Hampden and Winterport.
Bishop Robert Deeley, the current head of the diocese, praised Murray in a retirement letter for never presenting a problem without also offering a potential solution.
“One could say you offered your advice or opinion with a healthy disinterest and moved forward with whatever decision resulted,” Deeley said.
Murray has seen many changes in the diocese throughout his career. He went from being in charge of one building in his first parish at the Newman Center in Orono to being the chief administrator of six churches, two school buildings and four rectories in his last because of a diocese-wide consolidation plan implemented more than a decade ago due to a shortage of priests.
Halfway through his career, the child sexual abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston and other parts of the country became frontpage news. It took Murray by surprise.
“It has changed things so significantly since in terms of how sensitive we need to be about the whole reality of sexual abuse in every institution, not just the church,” he said. “We have to be present to it to try to prevent it from happening and to be able to see it and do something about it when it does happen.”
The scandal also changed how the public perceived Catholic priests.
“You didn’t automatically have people’s acceptance when you came upon them,” Murray said. “You had to deal with their cautiousness and you couldn’t be upset about that because you never know what someone might be working through.”
Another thing that surprised Murray over the years was how many people simply wanted to talk with him about what was going on in their lives. Often, they were not parishioners he saw in the pews each weekend but people who were raised Catholics but had stopped attending Mass regularly.
“As a priest, I think that you can really connect with a person in a deep way, in their best moments and their worst moments,” Murray said.
Murray said that he is retiring from being a pastor, which includes acting as an administrator for the parish, but not from being a priest who administers the sacraments.
“I won’t miss at all the worries of keeping the organization moving ahead and well oiled and greased,” he said. “I’ll be able to do more priestly ministry and focus on the sacraments because I won’t be in charge of buildings and personnel and budgets.”
Murray will live in the house he grew up in on Maple Street. He plans to spend time at the family camp with his brother and his relatives. Murray also wants to spend more time reading and in contemplation.
Parishioners after Mass at St. Mary’s on Tuesday morning said that they would miss him.
“He’s a very holy priest,” said Judy Fox, 77, of Bangor.
Joan England, 68, of Bangor described Murray as “very personable and very giving of his time.”
Murray said that he tells men considering the priesthood that it is “a way to really become the person the Lord wants you to be.”
“It’s a wonderful way of life that can be extremely demanding,” he said. “Yes, there are sacrifices, but the results of really living this call fully far outweigh the sacrifices one is called to make.”
The Rev. Andrew Dubois, a Fort Kent native ordained in 1995, will serve as pastor for St. Paul the Apostle Parish beginning Aug. 1.
Correction: An earlier version of this report misspelled the Rev. Andrew Dubois’ first name, and misidentified the street in Bangor where Murray grew up.