Msgr. John J. Murphy, longtime director of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, has been recalled from that post by Washington Archbishop James A. Hickey for reassignment to a local parish early next year.
The reassignment of Murphy is the first major personnel move by Hickey, who became archbishop here in August. Hickey has been quietly studying the 128 parishes in the District and the six nearby Maryland counties of the archdiocese, before putting his own stamp on the Washington arm of the church. a
"The archbishop has a need for clergy in the archdiocese," said the Rev. Maurice Fox, secretary to the archbishop. Fox said he could not say now where Murphy, who is a priest of the Washington archdiocese, will be reassigned.
Although the Shrine is located within the bounds of the Washington archdiocese, it is not technically a part of it, but belongs instead to the entire U.S. Catholic Church. It is governed by its own board of trustees, composed largely of U.S. Catholic cardinals and bishops. As archbishop of Washington, Hickey is automatically chairman of the Shrine board, with authority to appoint and remove staff.
Fox said the Murphy, 58, "has done a good job," and has been at the Shrine for 14 years. "It's time the other dioceses took up some of the burden," he said.
The directorship of the Shrine has been considered a prestige assignment in the church. At least one of Murphy's predecessors went from that post to a bishopric.
The Shrine, said to be the seventh largest church in the world, is a church without a parish or parishioners. Begun 60 years ago and still not finished, the massive, architecturally eclectic structure at 4th and Michigan NE contains 60 individual chapels, all dedicated to Mary, the mother of Christ. The Shrine's current annual operating budget is $1.7 million.
Except for massive events such as the papal visit or other ceremonial occasions involving large numbers of persons, the Shrine's programs focus largely on personal devotions and pilgrimages centering on the Virgin Mary, who has been designated by Catholics as the patron saint of this country.
Although it has no parishioners, the Shrine does have a faithful corps of followers for its schedule of daily and Sunday masses. In addition it is a tourist mecca for a special but limited segment of American Catholicism. Murphy acknowledged that the general decline in tourism in Washington has also affected the Shrine somewhat. "But we're better off than the Convention Bureau," he said.
A cafeteria in the Shrine's basement, operated by the Marriott food service, serves a clientele of elderly persons on limited income as well as visitors to the Shrine and Catholic University students. The Shrine's gift shop dispenses a variety of articles ranging from the widest assortment of holy medals available in the area to books about dieting.
In recent years the Shrine has been the subject of increasing contention among activist Catholics who contend that money spent for its massive and ornate construction and upkeep would be better applied to programs of social justice and charity.