Sister Lillian Murphy, RSM passed away peacefully on July 25 in San Francisco following a nearly 60-year career that helped thousands of low-income people in need and set a precedent for the affordable housing industry.
DENVER, CO — For nearly 30 years, Sister Lillian fearlessly led Mercy Housing, the nation’s largest affordable housing nonprofit, as the President and CEO. Her commitment and impact on affordable housing and to those in need will forever be felt. Sister Lillian joined Mercy Housing in 1987 as the second President and CEO. Under her leadership, Mercy Housing expanded from a small, regional housing development organization with 250 homes and 20 staff to a nationwide leader, that today, provides homes to nearly 45,000 residents with over 1,500 employees in 21 states.
Sister Lillian died at the age of 78 on July 25 in San Francisco, the city of her birth. She was the seventh of eight children born to Denis and Katherine Driscoll Murphy. Sister Lillian attended St. Peter’s elementary and high schools in the Mission District, where she came to know the Sisters of Mercy. She entered the Community in 1959 and was given the religious name of Sister Mary Denis, professing perpetual vows in 1967. She earned a BA from Russell College in Burlingame in 1965 and an MA in Health Services Administration from UC Berkeley in 1977.
Her ministries included bookkeeper at Russell College and St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Phoenix, Associate Administrator at St. Mary’s Hospital in San Francisco and Our Lady’s Home in Oakland, and Treasurer for the Sisters of Mercy. During her tenure at St. Mary’s she was instrumental in the conversion of the old Southern Pacific Hospital building into Mercy Terrace as housing for seniors. This project spurred her interest in the development of low-income housing. In 1987 she became President and CEO of Mercy Housing in Denver, a ministry begun by the Sisters of Mercy of Omaha. Her leadership, expanded the organization to a nationwide ministry serving over 151,000 people that includes partnerships with nine healthcare systems. Her belief that affordable housing with supportive services is essential for healthy lives was a driving force that continues to be lived out. What’s prolific about Sister Lillian’s impact on Mercy Housing, and consequently, the affordable housing industry is the legacy of adaptability that persists today. You can’t talk about Mercy Housing’s 38-year success without mentioning Sister Lillian.
“Sister Lillian’s dedication made Mercy Housing one of the most respected and largest affordable housing developers, owners, and managers out there. She balanced fearlessness with pragmatism and got more done than anyone could’ve hoped. Her mission-driven work lives on in our organization today with a vision and core principles that guide every decision that we make. Perhaps most importantly, the foundation that Sister Lillian laid, made our resident-centered approach possible. Our leadership in Resident Services and co-locating housing and healthcare were made possible through her determination and resourcefulness.”—Jane Graf, Mercy Housing President & CEO
She retired from Mercy Housing in 2014 then served as a housing consultant as well as a board member of Catholic Health Initiatives. Sister Lillian’s strong and practical leadership skills, her dedication to mission, her ability to get things done quietly without fanfare, and her sense of humor were valued gifts in her family, ministry, and community.
In 1998 she received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the USF School of Nursing. In 1999 The Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California honored her with its Lifetime Achievement Award. The National Low Income Housing Coalition presented her with its leadership award in 2006. In 2009 she was inducted into Affordable Housing Finance’s Hall of Fame, and in 2017 she was honored with the Dignity Award at the celebration of Mercy Housing’s 35th anniversary.
Sister Lillian is preceded in death by brothers Bobby, Denis and Jack Murphy, sister Maureen (Cookie) Houlette and brother-in-law Dick McKevitt, and her parents. She is survived by her sister Kathleen (Babe) Pavlovich and her husband Bob, sister Jean (Dolly) McKevitt, brother Jerry and wife Jane Murphy and dozens of nieces and nephews who adore her and always will, and by her loving community of the Sisters of Mercy.
About Mercy Housing, Inc.
Mercy Housing, Inc. (MHI), is a leading national affordable housing nonprofit headquartered in Denver, Colo. Established by the Sisters of Mercy in 1981, and in operation in 41 states, MHI has nearly 40 years’ experience developing, preserving, managing, and financing affordable housing, with regional offices in Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle. MHI supplements much of its housing with Resident Services, programs that help residents build stable lives. MHI’s subsidiaries further the organization’s mission: Mercy Housing Management Group (MHMG) offers professional property management and Mercy Loan Fund (MLF) finances nonprofit organizations.
MHI serves tens of thousands of people with low incomes, including families, seniors, veterans, people who have experienced homelessness, and people with disabilities. Its mission is to build a more humane world where poverty is alleviated, communities are healthy, and all people can live to their full potential. To learn more about MHI and the services it provides, visit mercyhousing.org.
Vigil will be held Monday, August 5 at 7 p.m. and Mass of Christian Burial on Tuesday, August 6 at 10:30. Memorial gifts may be made to the Sisters of Mercy, 2300 Adeline Drive, Burlingame, CA 94010 or Mercy Housing: https://www.mercyhousing.org/donate