Two local Irish Catholics receive rare papal Benemerenti medal

Benemerenti Nancy Murray Newell, center, receives the Benemerenti medal from Fr. Derry Murphy, SAC, with her husband, John. The medal, an award given by the pope, honors clergy, laypeople and Swiss guardsmen for their dedicated service to the Church. Newell received the medal along with her late brother, Christopher Murray, for her lifelong service to the Pallottine missions. Photos by Mike Stechschulte | The Michigan Catholic

Nancy Murray Newell, late Christopher Murray were ‘driven’ supporters of Pallottine missions

ROYAL OAK — Two members of the local Irish-American Catholic community received a rare papal honor July 15 at the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in thanks for nearly 50 years of supporting the missions of the local Irish Pallottine community both in Detroit and abroad.

Fr. Derry Murphy, SAC, provincial of the Dublin-based province of the Society of the Catholic Apostolate — known as the Pallottines — presented the Benemerenti medal to Nancy Murray Newell and the family of the late Christopher Murray during a ceremony in front of friends and family.

Benemerenti Nancy Murray Newell, a member of St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Allen Park, holds the Benemerenti medal she received July 15.

The Benemerenti medal, which began as an award for soldiers in the papal army in the 18th century, is today given as a way to honor clergy and laity for their service to the Church, Fr. Murphy said.

“A Benemerenti medal is an honor awarded by the pope,” said Fr. Murphy, who was visiting Detroit to give a mission appeal. “Both Nancy and Chris have been wonderful in giving their service to the Church, but they’re also very committed Catholics. Their service was always for the Church, and this is one of the highest honors one can receive for this life of service.”

In addition to laity and clergy, members of the Swiss Guard, the papal protection force, can receive it after three years of faithful service. For a member of the laity to receive it, letters of petition must go through the local bishop and papal nuncio, and the process can take more than a year.

“It’s fairly special,” Fr. Murphy said. “You don’t just roll up the Vatican and say, ‘Can I have two Benemerenti medals?’ It is a high honor.”

For decades, Newell and Murray have been “household names” among the Irish Pallottine community in southeast Michigan and in Ireland. The siblings, Irish immigrants to Detroit themselves, were synonymous with the growth of the Pallottines’ mission house in Wyandotte, which was founded in 1958 to raise money for the society’s missions in Tanzania, Kenya and Argentina.

“They had been involved very closely for many, many years,” Fr. Murphy said. “They’ve both been very convinced of the nature of our work in East Africa.”

Chris Murray, who died in March after learning last fall of his reception of the medal, was the third member of the family of 13 children to arrive in Detroit in 1954 — his sister Nancy arrived four years later — and the two immediately associated themselves with the Pallottine community.

A carpenter and an entrepreneur, Chris Murray served two terms as president of the Corktown-based Gaelic League, where he worked to promote traditional Irish music and football through annual festivals in Hart Plaza, with much of the proceeds supporting the Pallottines.

Newell, a mother of six, parish school volunteer and a decorated Irish dancer, also spent decades supporting the Pallottines’ missions in east Africa through fundraising and organizing an annual feis, a traditional Irish dinner-dance, earning the affectionate nickname “Mother Pallotti” from the Wyandotte priests.

Newell, who was present for the award reception along with her children and her husband, John, said the recognition was beyond anything she could have imagined.

“It was the most wonderful honor that I possibly could receive, other than marrying my husband and having my six children and grandchildren,” said Newell, a member of St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Allen Park. “I’m sure there’s a lot more people worthy of it than I am, but I am so blessed and am forever grateful for it.”

Michael Murray, Chris Murray’s son, who along with Murray’s other children received the award on their father’s behalf, said his father was “taken aback” when he first learned of the award last November, before his passing.

Fr. Derry Murphy, SAC, right, provincial of the Irish Pallottine community in Dublin, Ireland, presents the Benemerenti medal to the family of Christopher Murray, who died in March. Murray’s children Patrick Murray, Mary Laney, Ann Slusser and Michael Murray receive the medal.

“I think it made a big impact on him,” Michael Murray said. “I know he would point to my mom (Mary) and say he’s receiving it because of her.”

Michael Murray said his father, who was often quiet about his own spirituality, nevertheless was outspoken about supporting the Church, as well as “all things Irish and American.”

“He was passionate about his family and his faith. “That’s the way it was expected in our house: you were supporting the Pallottines. You supported the missions because that’s the Church, and you support the Church.”

Eileen Newell, Newell’s daughter, described both her mother and uncle as “hands-on, driven people” who loved their Irish heritage and faith.

“When you think about leaving your home in rural Ireland to come to the States, anybody who does that has some sense of drive,” Eileen Newell said. “My mom, as part of her confirmation when she was 12, inspired by the Sacred Heart, took an oath to refrain from alcohol. So for her entire life, she’s been what the Irish call a ‘pioneer.’”

Growing up poor in Ireland, Nancy Murray Newell (whose given name is Anne Teresa), said she remembers raising money for the “pagan babies” in developing nations as a young girl, and said she and her brother have been blessed to support the “unbelievable” work of the Pallottines.

“They build homes, spreading the word of God, setting up things for people who don’t have any money. I’m amazed by the wonders that they do over there,” Newell said. “They are just a phenomenal group of priests. Nobody realizes the work they do for the missions.”

Eileen Newell said her mother’s commitment to her faith has been an inspiration to all who know her, not the least of whom are her children.

“My mom has a vigorous spiritual life. She’ll often say she didn’t raise her six kids, the Memorare did,” Eileen Newell said. “She’s very passionate toward the life of the Church, and the Pallottines are near and dear to her heart.”

The Benemerenti medal, which means “well-deserved,” is a gold cross depicting Christ with his arms raised in blessing, featuring the papal symbol of the crossed keys on one side and the coat of arms of the current pope on the other. The medal is suspended by a white and gold ribbon, the colors of the papacy.