Benedictine priest was last surviving monk of Holy Cross Abbey

Multi-talented Father Michael Murray shared his gifts as a pastor, artist, businessman

Roxanne King

Benedictine Father Michael Murray, who was the last surviving monk of Holy Cross Abbey in Cañon City, died Dec. 14. He was 83. He had been a monk 63 years and a priest 38 years.

“He was a wonderful man, extremely talented in so many ways,” said the priest-monk’s brother John Murray of Lakewood, who shared the same birthday as his brother.

“He loved to tell the story that on his seventh birthday all he really wanted was a fire truck but what he got was a little brother,” John Murray recalled with a chuckle.

Born Donald James Murray on Sept. 20, 1936 to Tom and Carlotta Murray in Denver, he was one of six children. After graduating from Blessed Sacrament School in Denver, he became a boarder at Holy Cross Abbey High School in Cañon City, graduating in 1954.

“He had fallen in love with the Benedictine way of life and in January 1955 he entered the monastery,” John Murray said.

Taking the name Brother Michael, he professed his monastic vows in August 1956. His early years as a monk were spent in construction and food service. When the main monastery building was sinking in the late 1950s, John Murray said his brother designed a system to stabilize the structure.

“It worked, saving the community hundreds of thousands of dollars,” John Murray said.

In 1964, Brother Michael was named business manager of the monastery and the abbey school. Among his enterprises was launching Abbey Bread in conjunction with Safeway grocery stores and the Pillsbury Company.

“It was great bread,” John Murray said.

Active in the business community, Brother Michael was a member of the Cañon City Chamber of Commerce for several years and was elected president of the chamber in 1973. He was the first Benedictine monk to hold such a post in the United States, reported the Cañon City Daily Record.

“He would have been a very good businessman,” John Murray said. “He was a businessman at heart.”

In 1977, Brother Michael realized a longtime desire when he entered Pope St. John XXIII Seminary in Weston, Mass. He was ordained a priest in June 1981, the 25th year of his monastic profession.

His first priestly assignment was as assistant pastor at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Boulder, where he served from 1981-1985. He then served 16 years as pastor of St. Benedict Parish in Florence, where he implemented many innovative projects and instituted tithing.

“He was a giving priest,” said St. Benedict’s parishioner Debra Trujillo, who with her husband Bob remained close friends with their former pastor who they said was known throughout the wider community for generous donations of food and clothing, and for leaving the parish debt-free and with a large amount in reserve when he retired as pastor.

A gifted artist, Father Michael made metal sculptures ranging from wall crosses — which were in high demand at parish fundraising events — to oversized stand-alone abstract and religious pieces, some of which were commissioned by other churches. He also painted and did woodworking, including making beautiful caskets.

“He built wood caskets for the monks,” John Murray said. “He was always going to make one for himself, but he never got around to it.”

Father Michael’s artwork can be found in churches in southern Colorado and on the Holy Cross Abbey campus, his brother said.

“He was a very special man,” John Murray said. “He was comfortable in the business world, in the artistic world, and he had a culinary certificate.”

Over the years, Father Michael earned a master’s degree in business administration and a doctorate in ministry and pastoral counseling. During his time as pastor at St. Benedict’s, Father Michael also became administrator of Holy Cross Abbey. He continued in that role as the abbey underwent the process of dissolving its monastic program, which took three years starting in 2002 and culminated with the sale of the campus in 2007.

In recent years, Father Michael’s health began to fail but he continued pastoral and sacramental ministry in Cañon City, primarily at the assisted-living center where he eventually became a resident. While there, he continued to celebrate Mass for the residents.

“Father Michael was the last surviving member of Holy Cross Abbey,” said Benedictine Father Maurice Haefling of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchinson, Kan. Father Maurice serves as vicar administrator of Holy Cross Abbey, which is now a civil corporation.

“Father Michael cared very much about the abbey,” Father Maurice said. “It had literally been a part of his life since he went there to high school right before he joined the monastery.

“His whole life was focused on the abbey … and to parish ministry, to the spiritual care he provided at the care center and even as a resident there. Up until his last days he was ministering to people. … He was just a very caring person.”

Pueblo Bishop Stephen Berg celebrated Father Michael’s funeral Mass at St. Michael’s Church in Cañon City on Dec. 20. Burial was in Holy Cross Abbey cemetery.

“He was the last monk standing,” John Murray said. “There was one spot left on the property. That’s where he’s buried.”

COMING UP: From Naval officer to Benedictine nun

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From Naval officer to Benedictine nun

Meet the Abbey of St. Walburga’s newest solemnly professed sister

Aaron Lambert

The paths God leads his people on often take unexpected turns; for Sister Elizabeth Baumgartner, however, she never could have imagined going from active duty to a life of prayer.

Sister Elizabeth made her solemn vows and consecrated her life to God as the newest solemnly professed Benedictine nun at the Abbey of St. Walburga Nov. 6. Before entering the monastery in August 2008, she spent 15 years on active military duty as a Naval officer – seven years as a communications officer and eight years as a Cryptologic officer. She served both on shore and on ships, and was stationed all around the world throughout her career.

Now, she will spend the remainder of her days on earth serving the Lord, the Church and the community.

“I pray that I … [bring] Christ to those around me,” she said. “To be a faithful Benedictine nun, preserving the ‘school of the Lord’s service’ all the days of my life.”

Baptized as Judith, Sister Elizabeth was born and raised in Denver and is the eldest of seven children. She attended public school from kindergarten to 5th grade, and attended the recently closed St. Louis in Englewood for her middle school years. She graduated from St. Mary’s Academy in Englewood in 1988, and went on to attend the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. She was commissioned as an ensign upon her graduation in 1992.

While at the Naval Academy, Sister Elizabeth attended daily Mass as her schedule permitted. She was active in the Catholic community at each base she was assigned to while on active duty, and continued to attend Mass regularly. One day, while praying in the Catholic chapel at her first duty station in Naples, Italy, the thought of becoming a nun creeped into her mind.

“I was a bit surprised because I had never before thought of a vocation to religious life and besides, I had just begun my naval career and was really enjoying it,” she said. “I didn’t pay much attention to the thought and continued on with my life. Over the next ten years, the thought about religious life would pop up numerous times.”

After spending nine years overseas, Sister Elizabeth was stationed in Maryland in 2001. During this time, the desire for a vocation to religious life became very strong, she said, and she decided she needed to do something about it. She contacted a priest in the area she knew, and he put her in contact with a spiritual director and some sisters in the area.

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Judith Baumgarnter poses on a ship as a lieutentant in the United States Navy. Judith recently took a new name, Sister Elizabeth, when she made her solemn professions as the newest Benedictine nun at the Abbey of St. Walburga. (Photo provided)

She was transferred back to Naples in 2004 – her first assignment, and her last – and stopped actively looking into religious life due to being overseas again. Then one day after daily Mass, something unexpected happened.

“The priest asked me rather casually if I had ever thought about religious life, which surprised me since I had not mentioned anything to anyone,” Sister Elizabeth explained. “When I told him I had been thinking about religious life, but was unsure as to where I felt I was being led exactly, he offered assistance in finding a spiritual director in the area, as well as suggesting that I contact the abbess of a Benedictine abbey between Naples and Rome. He thought the Benedictines would be a good fit because I was older.”

She began spending time with the Benedictine nuns, and found herself being drawn more and more to the Benedictine life.

“After much prayer and consultation with my spiritual director, I decided to submit my request to resign my active duty commission in the U.S. Navy to actively pursue a vocation to religious life,” she said.

She settled on entering the Abbey of St. Walburga in her home state of Colorado, and after resigning from the Navy in September 2007, entered the monastery in August 2008. She made her first profession of monastic vows June 24, 2011, and made her solemn vows Nov. 6.

She received her religious name, Elizabeth, when she made her first vows, and it was only fitting that it fell on the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.

“My patroness is St. Elizabeth, mother of St. John the Baptist, so it was very beautiful that the Abbess chose the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist as the date of my first profession of monastic vows,” she said.