Reading Elizabeth Jean Murrow’s Mary, the First Catholic Priest: Confessions of a Catholic Woman (CreateSpace, 249 pp., $12.50, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is little bit like reluctantly sitting with your Aunt Agnes at a large family gathering, and then realizing she has led a fascinating life.
Murrow’s book is both autobiography and polemic. As a child growing up in Colorado, she and two of her brothers suffered terrible beatings by her father. Although Murrow exhibits no self-pity, the experience helped propel her into lifelong advocacy for the protection of children. That, coupled with her devout Catholicism, also made her push for the reform of the priesthood. She demands zero tolerance of pedophiles, and links that tolerance to the fact that the Catholic priesthood is an all-boys club.
If the priesthood included women, she argues, the abuse of children would have been rooted out long ago. Further, Murrow says, an all-male priesthood keeps the Catholic Church reactive, conservative, and overly protective of its perquisites.
Nonetheless, Murrow remained a devout Catholic—a “cafeteria Catholic,” as she puts it—and entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy in 1961 after studying nursing at Mercy Hospital in Denver. While she found life in the convent rewarding, Murrow left in 1966—partly, she explains, due to Pope John XXIII’s call for the Catholic Church to be in the world, not apart from it.
She exchanged her nun’s habit for the uniform of the U.S. Navy. Murrow volunteered to serve in Vietnam, where she worked on the hospital ship, the U.S.S. Sanctuary, as it shuttled between Danang and the DMZ, caring for wounded American troops, as well as for Vietnamese people in need of medical attention.
After the war, she taught nursing at Clemson, and traveled a lot before finally settling in West Virginia.
Betty Murrow has led a remarkable life. But like the tale told by dear Aunt Agnes, her book needs some judicious editing. Sometimes her tangents are frustrating, and sometimes it’s clear Murrow is not addressing the reader, but her daughter or her family at large. The casual reader too often is left in the position of unwitting eavesdropper.