As told to: Patricia Robertson
Père Murray was a living legend. The legend, as legends always do, has broadened and brightened following his death. He was short in stature and stocky, but his size was deceptive; for those who knew him for more than five minutes, he became larger than life. His constant message to his students, etched in the memory of every Notre Dame Hound remains: “Every human life is insignificant until you make yourself great.” His gigantic store of energy was expended in the interests of what he described as ‘authentic humanism’ and intellectualism. Sport, oratory, statue building and Notre Dame College itself are simply vehicles on which he approached these ultimate objectives.
—Jack Gorman, Père Murray and The Hounds
In the summer of 1927, Fr. Athol Murray arrived in Wilcox with a touring car full of Protestant boys. The boys were delinquents recruited from his previous gig as a volunteer coach at the Regina Argos Club he founded. The motley entourage pulled in front of the parish house with a flourish and went in search of a key for their new home. Observers said once Murray secured the key from the Catholic sisters down the street, he tossed it away and never locked the parish house again.
Bishop Mathieu of Regina asked Père Murray to take over the remote parish after the Wilcox parish priest, Father Benoit, died of tuberculosis. Soon after Murray and his 15 Argos moved into the parish house, the boys enrolled in Notre Dame High School run by the Sisters of St. Louis of Charity. There were few prospects in the late 1920s for young men so they had followed their charismatic mentor to Wilcox in order to play baseball and hockey. The town of Wilcox would never be the same.
Athol Murray was born in 1892 in Toronto, the scion of a wealthy Rosedale businessman. His Christian name Athol was after a great-great-grandfather who was related to the Duke of Athol, of Athol Castle in Scotland. Murray’s mother, Nanno Hayes, was a devout Catholic who converted her Protestant husband, James Peter Murray. Nanno died when Athol Murray was just four years old. After her death, he was housed with relatives until he was enrolled at Loyola College in Montreal at age eight. A Jesuit priest, a full-blooded Iroquois named Father Quirk, took an interest in Murray.
From there, Murray was dispatched to St. Michael’s College in Toronto for two years and then made his final jump to Ste. Hyacinthe — a French-speaking College near Quebec City — where he learned French and developed a love for the Classics. “My grandfather had been convinced that Canada would become a bilingual country and that it was necessary to know both French and English in order for one to become a success,” Murray told his biographer, Jack Gorman.
Murray went on to study law at Osgoode Hall and accepted a clerking job at a prestigious Toronto law firm. He was on his lunch hour when he spotted a tattered copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions in the window of a bookstore. He turned through the pages and landed on a passage: “He who does what in him lies, God will not deny his Grace.” This message inspired him to quit law and enter the seminary. In 1918, Murray was ordained a priest. After a few challenging assignments in Ontario, Murray was loaned out to the Archbishop of Regina and moved west to Saskatchewan.
It was tough slogging those first few years in Wilcox. The remote hamlet had few services and the Notre Dame School desperately needed funds and new students to fuel Murray’s dreams of expansion. Père Murray had two key policies: you didn’t have to be a Catholic to enroll in the College and money was no barrier. Low-income students could trade a side of beef for tuition. No one in financial need was turned away from the school.
Struggle and emerge, Luctor et Emergo, was the school’s motto and struggle they did. Resourceful students frequently resorted to liberating a chicken to fill the pot from a nearby farm; pragmatic Père looked the other way. The student dormitories were crude with no central heat or running water but the conversations over their meager dinners were inspired. Murray was a skilled orator and he instilled a love of the humanities in all of his protégés.
Murray also excelled as an athletic coach and developed the hockey program into a first-class training ground for those destined for NHL careers or Canada’s Olympic Team. (Notre Dame alumni include Wendel Clark, Russ Courtnall, Curtis Joseph, James Patrick and Nick and Don Metz.) If the hockey team lagged behind on the scoreboard, Murray would shout from the sidelines, “Never Lose Heart Hounds!” and the team turn it around. The cagey priest wasn’t afraid to pass the hat, either, as rural communities appreciated the entertainment value of a dynamic match.
On the intellectual side of the Notre Dame equation, Père Murray built up an impressive library collection in order to qualify for baccalaureate status with the University of Ottawa. The Archives and Museum boasts three ancient 13th century manuscripts written on vellum and an original, hand-made Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493. (It’s an illustrated Biblical paraphrase and world history that follows the story of human history related in the Bible.) Visitors will also find a copy of the Foundation Papers of the 1864 Constitution as Murray’s aunt was married to Hugh John MacDonald, Premier of Manitoba and son of Prime Minister John A. MacDonald. General Robert E. Lee’s personal library was also gifted to the Archives by his niece, Sarah Lee Davidson.
How did a parish priest based in a remote town in Southern Saskatchewan amass such a great collection of rare books? Murray rubbed elbows with Prime Ministers, Kings, journalists, impoverished students and wealthy businessmen with equal ease. This complex man rejected the mediocre, welcomed all faiths and even tried to reconcile the Jews and Arabs in the Middle East (more on that adventure later).]
College archivist, Terry McGarry, met Murray back in 1969 when McGarry joined the school as a carpenter. “What did I learn from Père Murray? Everything I am today. My worldview widened tremendously, especially in terms of religion. I learned questioning and critical thinking. If Père Murray were still here today, I know he’d be ahead of his time,” muses McGarry as we tour the Archives and Museum dedicated to Murray’s collecting, the College builders and other luminaries.
Portraits of John Diefenbaker, Max Bell and other faithful Murray supporters and friends grace the white walls of the Archives and Museum. The 21 pastel portraits were commissioned by Murray and executed by Russian-born, Canadian-based artist Nicholas de Grandmaison. The artist made it his lifetime mission to depict the First Nations people of Western Canada and he and Murray bonded over his iconic subject matter.
Murray was popular on the sportsman’s dinner circuit and he played host to countless curious visitors to Canada’s version of Boy’s Town. (The Omaha orphanage for boys founded by Father Flanagan and portrayed by Spencer Tracy who won an Oscar for the role in 1938.) Father Flanagan was recently nominated for Sainthood. Critics would say Murray was anything but a candidate for Sainthood. He was outspoken, rebellious and independent-minded. “There was one thing about Père, he never questioned or wavered on the existence of God but he was a critical thinker,” says McGarry. “He had a great love for Canada, hockey and God. And he loved kids.”
The success of the school and its hockey program prompted many luminaries to seek out the voluble priest. Their host would welcome them into his shabby office to share a scotch (often in a dirty glass). Murray was not known for his tidy housekeeping or neat personal appearance. “He preferred his plaid shirt to priestly robes,” says McGarry. “He didn’t like any barriers between him and other people.” Murray’s standard winter garb was a WWI leather pilot’s hat and an RCMP buffalo coat and he always had a cigarette dangling from his lower lip.
As the school was perpetually under-funded, Murray became an accomplished barterer. He learned to keep the school going without any available cash. “There was a baker in Regina whom Père used to ask for day old bread after their hockey game in the city. The baker would say to Father, ‘I’ll go have a look in the back’ and that was the secret signal to take four fresh loaves from the front shelf.” Father Murray could always find a way or a solution in order to keep his boys fed.
In the early 1960s, the cupboard was bare and Murray personally dialed up his friend John Diefenbaker in Ottawa. “He said, John, I need your help. I’ve exhausted all of my personal resources and I can’t get help in time,” recalls McGarry. The Prime Minister said he couldn’t take personal requests but would talk to his Ministers. The Canadian government had some rations leftover from the Korean War that it needed to dispose off. Spam has limitless shelf life so a trainload of Spam arrived in Wilcox. “The boys ate it cold, mashed and sliced for breakfast, lunch and supper. That and a truckload of pickles from a farmer in Craven,” says McGarry with a grin.
Until his death in 1975, Athol Murray kept the College afloat — and food on the table — for almost fifty years. But he didn’t do it alone. Murray had the support of generous patrons like real estate magnate Fred K. Hill. Hill knew Murray from the time Hill was a young boy in Regina. His parents, Walter and Grace Hill, frequently played host to the priest in their Regina home. Murray became a mentor to young Fred who later reciprocated with leadership and financial support for Notre Dame. Like Murray, Fred K. Hill was a voracious reader and a generous man whose motto was “…it was far better to err on the side of generosity.”
Fred Hill’s son, Paul, continues the family tradition of fiscal and leadership support for the College since his father’s death in 2008. “Sometimes, it seems to me that all of the Hill family of companies exists so that we can fund Notre Dame,” jokes Paul Hill on the phone from California. He’s just returned from a whirlwind tour of Europe that included an audience with the Pope.
Paul recalls a memorable trip he took with his father, brother and Murray to meet with King Faisal in 1975. Murray wanted to erect a Middle East monument, The Tower of Abraham, dedicated to peace in a region beset with religious conflict for over 4000 years. It would be based on the Tower of God erected in Wilcox as a testament to interfaith goodwill and cooperation. During the audience with King Faisal, the King was receptive to the idea but cautioned Murray that gaining cooperation from the Jews would be a challenge. Ten days after the party returned to Canada, King Faisal was assassinated. Murray’s ambitious plans for a Tower of Abraham were derailed.
When Murray passed away in late 1975, Murray was buried on campus next to the Tower of God. The Board of Regents convened an emergency meeting at the College and asked Fred Hill to take the reins. Hill recruited Martin Kenney from a Winnipeg private girl’s school to oversee administrative and educational matters while the two men stabilized the College. “Lock the doors and throw away the key,” was Kenney’s initial advice after he toured the facilities and looked at the books. Hill was undeterred. He’d made a promise to Murray to keep the school going so Hill continued to persuasively lobby Martin Kenney until the Kenneys agreed to a family tour of the facility.
“It was Good Friday in 1976,” recalls Martin Kenney’s son Jason. “We pulled up to the school and it was desolate. The weather was overcast, we got stuck in the gumbo mud on the way out there and the students were mostly away except for a handful of foreign exchange students. It was a bleak picture but all of the members of our family felt that day a kind of calling — even as a little kid — I felt a super-spiritual experience out there.”
The decision to quit Winnipeg for Wilcox meant the Kenney family moved from a 30-room Victorian mansion on Wellington Crescent in Winnipeg to a basement apartment on campus infested with mice and crickets. “We were living quite above our social status,” says Kenney who is now a cabinet minister in the federal government. “I went from being a prep school boy to attending a three-room school house in Wilcox.”
Martin Kenney rolled up his sleeves and got to work. According to Jason Kenney, his father spent the first three or four years relentlessly combing the country with Fred Hill raising money from alumni, hitting up Canadian captains of industry and recruiting first tier staff.
“My father was also very keen on attracting talented hockey players. He knew the school had a great athletic tradition and he could help to rebuild it through the hockey program,” says Kenney.
Sport offered the life lessons that the students needed to thrive in the competitive outside world. Kenney retained Murray’s core philosophy. This meant the school must develop the whole person: the mind, body and spirit. Kenney was sure to impart the same values to the next generation of Hounds: perseverance, loyalty and teamwork.
After a concerted effort, the Notre Dame Hounds were winning national championships, the school was fiscally stable and well-staffed. Under Kenney’s careful leadership and with the addition help of his dedicated wife, Lynn, the school was reborn.
In 1991, Martin and Lynn Kenney departed from the school to embrace new challenges. Père Murray’s legacy had been restored and their work was done.
When he died in 1975, he had been promoted to Monsignor, was inducted into both the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and the Hockey Hall of Fame and received the Order of Canada. But most significantly, he left a legacy of the toughest little college in Canada.
In 2011, the women’s hockey team won the national midget championships current President Rob Palmarin tells me as we tour the campus. It’s orientation day and prospective female student athletes have convened in the gym to learn more about the College. The school is still challenged to meet funding demands and train future leaders and athletes.
Palmarin admits to being fuelled on coffee so he can meet his busy leadership and coaching commitments. “The goal is to achieve with character,” says Palmarin with a smile. The first question Father Murray always asked a new student was: “Do you want to be here?” My primary job here as President is to work with students to build them up, says Palmarin. The campus is buzzing with activity today as coaches and athletes convene to size each other up. It’s another busy day on the toughest little campus on the Prairies. All around us is a youthful testament; proudly wearing red and white Hounds uniforms. This is the living legacy of a spunky priest who lived his own motto: “Take the initiative. Take up your enterprise for the community.”
In 1981 the name of the school was changed to Athol Murray College of Notre Dame. A fitting tribute to a great spirit who changed the lives of so many students and enjoyed such a wide circle of devoted friends. As Murray liked to say: “Every human life is insignificant until you make yourself great.
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