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One bishop’s high cost of living

New York

It all began when Newsday’s Jimmy Breslin wrote a column criticizing Bishop William Murphy of the Rockville Centre diocese on Long Island for spending more than $5 million on renovations for St. Agnes Cathedral that included a palatial residence for himself.

The residence has been constructed on the old convent building’s third floor, which initially was being renovated for the six Dominican sisters who lived there but who had moved out while the renovations were in progress. When the convent was first built in the 1930s, it was able to house 56 Dominican sisters who established and taught in the St. Agnes elementary and high schools, but that number had dwindled to six in recent years.

In 2000, the year that the late James McHugh was bishop, the parish had made an arrangement under which the third floor would be renovated to meet the needs of the remaining nuns and the first two floors and basement would be converted to parish offices.

However, when Murphy first came to Rockville Centre a year ago, he was not satisfied living in the cathedral rectory because it lacked privacy. He thought that a separate house originally donated by the family of the late Bishop Walter Kellenberg was not large enough to entertain visiting prelates or other dignitaries.

So the bishop decided to ask the sisters to find quarters elsewhere so that he could renovate the convent’s top floor to suit his own tastes and perceived needs. The original estimate of $500,000 for construction and furnishings for his new residence has since ballooned to $800,000.

“The sisters, I think, were disappointed,” Murphy told a Newsday reporter recently, “but a disappointment they expressed with great generosity. They understood my dilemma.”

Sr. Virginia McGuire, who was prioress of the Dominican Congregation of the Holy Cross at the time said, told Newsday, “It’s a difficult thing to say no to the bishop, but the question was asked.”

Fr. James Kelly, cathedral rector, was quoted in the Newsday story as saying, “Most people have a fond spot in their heart for the sisters, they bore the heat of the day, they lived simple lives and were heroic in their witness.”

Breslin had written earlier that the 5,000-square-foot top floor was large enough to have 36 apartments and could easily be used for other purposes, an observation that Murphy branded as “misinformation” that wasn’t “fair or just.”

It was at this point that the bishop decided to invite a Newsday reporter and photographer to the residence that he moved into in early October so that the record could speak for itself. If the public reaction by Catholics is any indication, that decision may have been ill-advised.

With a ‘cardinal’s suite’

Complete with photographs of a lavishly decorated living room, a new fireplace with an oak mantel and a kitchen that features top-of-the-line appliances and equipment, the story describes in detail the private wing in the residence. This includes the bishop’s bedroom and marble bath, a bedroom and study for his secretary, Fr. Joseph DeGrocco and a separate suite called “the cardinal’s suite.” A public wing has a fourth bedroom for visiting laity.

The ceiling in the dining room has been lowered at additional expense so that a chandelier could be installed. An extra $120,000 was spent on three Oriental rugs and a new table was bought for the dining area along with 12 specially upholstered chairs. The Murphys’ personal art collection adds to the design.

Aside from all the most modern appliances, the kitchen has a double Sub-Zero refrigerator with an adjoining pantry that has an under-counter temperature-controlled wine storage cabinet for 50 bottles of wine. The top shelf in the cabinet is set at 45 degrees for champagne and white wine while the lower shelf is set at 55 degrees for red wine. There is a six-burner Viking professional range.

Originally, the estimated cost for the convent renovation, gold gilding for the cathedral’s organ pipes and a new parish center (still unfinished) was set at $5.5 million according to the Newsday report. So far, $4.7 million has been pledged while only $2.7 has been collected.

“The convent was already under renovation, and it was close to the cathedral,” Murphy explained to the reporter, “which, of course, is my cathedral and it makes sense that if I could be close to my cathedral, I should be.”

After the story broke, one angry Catholic wrote to Newsday, “On behalf of practicing Catholics in the Rockville Centre diocese, I would like to remind Bishop William Murphy of one simple fact: St. Agnes Cathedral is not his cathedral; it belongs to all of the members of the diocese.”

Another wrote, “Thank you, Bishop Murphy, for so clearly demonstrating the arrogance of the current leadership within the Roman Catholic church. That arrogance, combined with the leadership’s cultural ignorance, will be significant in redefining the role of the Catholic church in our society.”

If the bishop thought that a story in Newsday, with pictures, would clear the air and correct “misinformation,” another story was about to break that would compound his problems in the community. A few days after the story about his new residence appeared, it was reported that Catholic Charities in the Rockville Centre diocese is terminating a $1.1 million home care program that will no longer serve 500 indigent, mentally ill people on Long Island. The service will end in December. Catholic Charities attributed its decision to “mounting expenses.”

“It’s interesting that our deficit [$140,000] is about the same amount as what the church is spending on the kitchen appliances and Oriental rugs in the [bishop’s] residence,” Kate Bishop, the program’s coordinator, fumed to the press. “Our mission is to serve people who are marginalized and disenfranchised. For them to turn around, with no notice, and end the program, is horrible.”

This is not the first time that the Rockville Centre diocese has come under criticism for its financial priorities. A few months ago, Murphy drew some fire when he hired Howard Rubenstein Associates, one of the most high-powered, and high-priced, public relations firms in the country to develop public relations strategies in the wake of the priests’ sex abuse scandal. It may have been Rubenstein who advised Murphy to invite the press to describe his new residence for the public. (* see clarification box below)

A new monastery

The bishop has also announced plans to invite 12 contemplative nuns from Nigeria to come to the diocese and establish a monastery in which they will devote all their energies to praying for vocations. As part of the plan, he hopes to “find generous lay faithful who will help us build them a new monastery.” As for the six sisters displaced by the new residence, two were elderly and are living in the order’s main convent in Amityville; the others are temporarily living in a convent in Hicksville.
If there had been any consideration that Murphy would offer the Kellenberg house to the sisters to compensate for the loss of their convent, that was squelched when the bishop expressed his intention to sell the Kellenberg house to defray some of the renovation costs for his residence.

Perhaps in answer to the angry outcry following the news about his new residence, the cutback in Catholic Charities services and his expensive public relations efforts, Murphy recently informed all his priests that, “one of my principal tasks in the next 12 months is to focus on better communications.”

As part of this, he has also announced ambitious plans for the diocese’s first synod that will allow people to share their ideas and thoughts on everything from parish councils to fund-raising and even building projects. According to the bishop, the synod “must involve as many people as possible through listening sessions, feedback, collating of suggestions and ideas.”

The synod is scheduled to be held in 2007.

Dick Ryan is a freelance writer living in New York.

Clarification from 11/22/2002 issue of NCR
A story in the Oct. 25 issue of NCR suggested that a public relations firm working with Rockville Centre, N.Y., Bishop William Murphy might have encouraged him to invite reporters and photographers to his new residence. A spokesperson for Howard Rubenstein Associates states that the firm did not advise the bishop on this matter in any way.

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 2002