BURLINGAME, California — Mercy Sister Lillian Murphy, a former CEO of Mercy Housing Inc., and a national advocate for affordable housing, died at age 78 July 25 in San Francisco.
A funeral Mass for her will be celebrated Aug. 6 at Our Lady of Angels Church in Burlingame, followed by committal at Holy Cross Cemetery.
“If you know Sister Lillian, you know that there are no words that truly reflect the level of gratitude we all feel for her lifelong commitment of service to others and more specifically her gift of leadership to Mercy Housing for the past 32 years,” said Jane Graf, president and CEO of Mercy Housing. “We will forever celebrate her legacy to the community, to the affordable housing industry and to the residents of Mercy Housing.”
A news release from her religious community said Murphy believed housing is “a basic human right” and that “stable housing was the basis of a healthy life and committed her life to creating it for those in need — from single moms living in their cars to mentally ill elders on the streets.”
Murphy called the housing ministry, the “third wave” of ministry for women religious, following the traditional ones of hospitals and schools. The Sisters of Mercy began Mercy Housing in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1981, and Murphy stepped into the role of president in 1987.
“People sometimes think of not-for-profit housing as charity,” said Murphy at one of the many Mercy Housing property dedications. “It’s not charity. It’s justice. People have a right to safe, affordable housing. We are not just dealing with bricks and mortar. We are dealing with human lives. We want to be known for compassionate competence.”
Born in San Francisco, she was the seventh of Denis and Katherine Driscoll Murphy’s eight children. Young Lillian was taught by Mercy sisters in San Francisco. She entered the Sisters of Mercy in Burlingame in 1959 at age 18. Her mother was pessimistic about her future as a religious sister, telling her: “You won’t last two weeks. You can’t stand anybody telling you what to do.”
That quality proved to be one of her greatest strengths as she came to assume leadership positions.
She was given the religious name of Sister Mary Denis, professing perpetual vows in 1967. She earned a bachelor of arts degree from Russell College in Burlingame in 1965 and a master’s in health services administration from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1977.
Murphy honed her administrative skills as business office manager for St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix from 1966 to 1974 and then as assistant administrator for St. Mary’s Hospital in San Francisco for the next seven years. Her duties there included the 1983 rehabilitation of the former Southern Pacific hospital building into what is now Mercy Terrace. The project, 158 units of subsidized housing for very low income and handicapped seniors, won several design and historic preservation awards.
Her experience led her to a commitment to housing for the next 27 years.
“Every step of the way (in her early ministries) was preparation for Mercy Housing,” she said
Her belief that affordable housing with supportive services is essential for healthy lives was a driving force of her ministry. Under her 27-year leadership, Mercy Housing grew from a small, regional organization with 250 units and 10 staff members to become an award-winning, national, not-for-profit housing organization with a presence in 220 cities, 41 states and the District of Columbia. It serves more than 135,000 people in more than 39,000 affordable homes.
“She was a true visionary. No challenge was too great,” said Sister Terese Marie Perry, former superior general of the Burlingame Regional Community, who had urged Murphy to leave hospital work and to commit herself to Mercy Housing.
She retired from Mercy Housing in 2014 then served as a housing consultant as well as board member of Catholic Health Initiatives, a national nonprofit health system with headquarters in Englewood, Colorado.
In recognition of her vision and leadership, Murphy received numerous awards. In 1998, the University of San Francisco awarded Murphy an honorary doctor of humane letters. She received the prestigious Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California’s Affordable Housing Leadership Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1999. In 2006, Murphy received the 25th Annual Housing Leadership Award from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, and in 2009, she was inducted into the Affordable Housing Hall of Fame by Affordable Housing Finance Magazine.
Most recently, Murphy was honored with the Dignity Award at the celebration of Mercy Housing’s 35th anniversary Oct. 6, 2017, in Denver.
She is survived by her sister Kathleen (Babe) Pavlovich and her husband, Bob; sister Jean (Dolly) McKevitt; brother Jerry and his wife, Jane Murphy; dozens of nieces and nephews; and “her loving community of the Sisters of Mercy.”
Murphy was preceded in death by brothers Bobby, Denis and Jack Murphy, sister Maureen (Cookie) Houlette and brother-in-law Dick McKevitt, and her parents.
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