Society

Meet the Chennai girl who is now a priest in a village in Wales

Rev Shirley Murphy with her family and her current boss, Rev Joanna Penberthy, the bishop of St Davids, Wales, at her ordination; husband Julian (back row, second from left)   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

In February this year, Shirley Murphy became the first priest of Indian origin to be chaplain to the bishop of St Davids, Wales.

It is an irony that she laughs at. “It was the Welsh who converted us, six generations ago. They taught us the Anglican tradition, and here I am today, doing the same, but in the UK,” she says. Some people do wonder about how she felt towards the British, considering our colonial past. “I tell them, ‘That was in the past. You don’t hold grudges. You give your life to the people to the community in which you serve.”

Shirley was born in Chennai, where she finished her schooling in Sacred Heart, Church Park; and college in WCC and MCC. Through her growing up years she was a regular church goer, first to Zion Church and then St Andrew’s Kirk.

While in Chennai, she began working in the travel and tourism industry, for El Al, one of Israel’s airlines. She went to Israel more than once, and in 2004 she says she felt a calling to the church, but ignored it.

“It was only after my son — who I call a miracle baby — was born, that I was prompted to go into ministry,” she says, of both her and her baby’s near death experience in 2013.

Her local vicar at Bronwydd, Carmarthen county, Wales, encouraged her, especially since she was already leading services. She was ordained in 2018, after graduating in theology from St Padarn’s Institute, in Cardiff. Her first assignment was in Narberth, Pembrokeshire.

Shirley first came to Wales in 2010, when she and her husband Julian Murphy decided to make the move from London, where they lived, after his father passed away. They wanted to be closer to family, especially his mother and his four children from a previous marriage.

“People here were very supportive. It was the first time they’d experienced someone from a different part of the world be a part of their church,” she says, adding that it was also a learning for them that everyone in India was not Hindu. She was pleasantly surprised at not facing any racism in Wales, considering she had in London. “I was told to speak slower though,” she says, adding that people speak in softer tones than we do in India.

“They do stare sometimes, because I look so different. When I’m out with my husband they tend to look again, because he is a musician and he has all these tattoos and earrings, and I have this collar,” she says, laughing.

Most parishes in villages in Wales are small — at 12-15 people, with church members being mainly the elderly . “People tend to do other things on Sunday, like playing soccer or rugby,” she says, adding that it’s also true that many have lost faith in organised religion. So it leaves the local vicars to think up innovative ways to bring people in.

“Last October, I did a drive-in service,” she says, of the need to have people come together safely in the times of Covid-19. People came in their cars, parked them in the open and she held a service. In pre-Covid times, there were services for people to bring their pets to get blessed. “They’ve brought cows, donkeys, dogs!”

Grandparents would try and bring their grandchildren in to play soccer and listen to Bible stories, in something called Sweaty Church. Sometimes, Sunday School would be on Saturday, to get more kids in.

A lot of her village is not well connected with the Internet so Zoom service was not an option. “I began a blog (revshirleymurphy.co.uk) and started posting daily messages on social media,” she says.

With her current job, she’s posted in Abergwili. “Normally when you finish curacy (a three-year training period), you get assigned to a parish. I skipped a stage, when this job got offered to me. It’s high profile, because we’re looking at diplomatic interactions as well,” she says. Her family shifts with her changing jobs.

When she dons the cassock on Sunday, “I feel proud and privileged,” especially during the lockdown, when hers was considered an essential service. What hit people the worst was the loneliness, and Shirley would make trips to see the elderly, standing outside their homes and having a quick chat. “You can garden and watch TV, but finally, human connection is what we want the most.”

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 4:25:57 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/first-indian-woman-to-be-a-priest-in-wales/article34355340.ece

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