Dave Murphy set out with a goal for the new year in 2019 — to attend Mass at every church in the Archdiocese of St. Louis in recognition of his 50th birthday.
It wasn’t a New Year’s resolution per se, but as a perpetual goal-setter, Murphy knew that this would be perhaps his most monumental quest ever. The member of Assumption Parish in O’Fallon described it as “pretty epic.”
“I am a goal-setter, I make a million goals,” Murphy said. “I thought, maybe I could make some goals around the number 50.” As a runner, he considered a 50-mile race. That didn’t work out. He attempted 50 hand-written letters to family and friends. It fizzled.
Murphy then shifted to how he makes it a habit to attend Mass every day during Lent. That got him thinking, “How cool would it be if I could go to every parish in the archdiocese?”
He started with Mass on Jan. 1 at his home parish, Assumption in O’Fallon. By the end of the year, Murphy visited 190 sites in all, including three Eastern-rite churches. There were a handful of churches that he wasn’t able to get to, because they either didn’t offer regular Mass times or were recently closed. He ended his mission on Dec. 20 with a visit to the mother church of the archdiocese — the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis.
Some of those in the farthest reaches of the archdiocese required him to leave at 4:30 a.m., make an hour-and-a-half drive for 6 a.m. Mass, and then another hour drive back to St. Louis to make it in time for work. There were a few occasions in which he showed up at a church to discover Mass wasn’t taking place. He quickly learned to scour parish websites and bulletins, and make the occasional phone call, as he said, “just to double- and triple-check.”
Murphy also took a trip down memory lane, attending Mass at parishes he’d been associated with in the past, including his childhood parish, St. Rita in Vinita Park; All Souls in Overland, where he and his wife Colleen were married; and St. Norbert in Florissant, where they started their family of seven children.
Of the churches he visited, Murphy categorized about 40 of them as “epic,” meaning there was something extra special about the visit, such as the historic architecture of the building, or the kindness of parishioners — and in many cases, both.
At a visit in December to Most Holy Trinity in the Hyde Park neighborhood of St. Louis, Murphy told the congregation after Mass he considered their parish as part of his “epic” list, because of how welcoming people were; not to mention the beauty of the Gothic-style church with twin spires, which dates back to 1848.
“This is most definitely on my epic list,” he told them after Mass.
Murphy observed a sense of pride, especially at parishes in urban and rural parts of the archdiocese. At several churches within the North City Deanery, he said, “the sense of pride I got in those parishes was second to none.”
After attending a weekday Mass at Little Flower Parish in Richmond Heights, Murphy recalled how he was stopped by a regular Massgoer, who said she hadn’t noticed him there before. After learning about his quest, the woman gave him a tour of the church, which dates to 1949 and was built completely in the round, with the pews making a complete circle around the altar in the center of the church.
He also discovered the rich history of Catholicism in the southeastern part of the archdiocese, in Ste. Genevieve, the first organized European settlement west of the Mississippi River. Ste. Genevieve Parish is the oldest recorded parish in the archdiocese, dating back to 1759; the first parishioners were French Catholics from Canada.
Fourteen miles west of Ste. Genevieve in Lawrenceton, Murphy met a man who is a descendant of the Henry and Charles Lawrence families, early immigrant settlers who donated the land to start St. Lawrence Parish, founded in 1872. “The guy lives right next door,” he said. “He was so nice. Him and his wife are deeply involved in the parish. The ladies invited me downstairs to the history museum, and that’s when I met him. It was fascinating.”
At other churches where English wasn’t the primary language, Murphy said he appreciated that the routine of the Mass was the same, a nod to the universality of the liturgy. At St. Andrew Kim, where Korean is the primary language, Murphy said in jest, “some woman took pity on me and gave me a book to follow along.” He also enjoyed visiting the Eastern rite churches, including St. Mary’s Assumption Ukrainian, where he felt like it was “a scene right out of a movie — they’re all chanting.”
In writing about his visits, Murphy said he realized how much he loved hearing the sound of a creaking pew, especially at older churches. “I love that — to me, it’s like all the souls that once sat on that seat are talking to me.”
Most of all, he said he came away from his challenge recognizing that “everybody is so proud of their parish — as they should be. We have such a rich heritage as Catholics.”