Father Brian comes home

Mourners gather at Grace Church to pay last respects to a beloved Islander.

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Father Brian places ashes and prays with Eddie Ben David during Ashes to Go, an Ash Wednesday observance at the SSA, which was instituted by Father Brian. —Robert MacLean

A crowd of nearly 100 mourners from many walks of Vineyard life gathered in the chilly wind and bright sunshine at Grace Episcopal Church Memorial Garden in Vineyard Haven Saturday morning to welcome Father Brian Murdoch home again and say a last loving farewell.

The vibrant, well-liked 62-year-old Father Brian died suddenly on Oct. 16. His unexpected death left parishioners and many across the community shocked and devastated.

Although at Grace Church for barely two years, Father Brian had made an indelible mark. With his healing touch, big heart, wide grin, spontaneity, and a deep compassion that embraced everyone he encountered, he was welcomed by parishioners and the extended Island community alike.

The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, conducted a memorial service on Oct. 19 at a packed Grace Church. A funeral days later at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston drew mourners from clergy and diocesan staff to Vineyard friends and Grace Church members, and those needy and struggling neighbors Father Brian had worked with on the streets of Boston.

As priest in charge, Father Brian threw his boundless energy into making Grace Church a lively and colorful place of welcome and sanctuary, urging newcomers and strangers to join in the dynamic experience of community and worship. His personality was marked by love and acceptance, great good humor, joy in living, deep faith in God, and reverent, caring appreciation for people, animals, music, and nature.

Outreach, compassion, and connection were Father Brian’s watchwords — along with celebration. He was equally at home beside a hospital bedside, comforting a grieving parishioner, or counseling a troubled teen as he was dancing at an anniversary party, cheering the musicians at an outdoor concert, or singing “Happy Birthday” to a thrilled kindergartner. It was his nature to support, encourage, make others feel better, special, of value.

Now Father Brian was returning to his adopted home on Martha’s Vineyard, the place where

those who knew him best said he was happier than at any other time in his life. Although his large, extended family is centered on Boston’s North Shore, relatives agreed it was here he should be buried.

To many, the occasion echoed the words of a recording at his memorial service, “Bring Him Home” from “Les Miserables,” a piece he wanted played at his funeral.

The Rt. Rev. William Murdoch welcomed the crowd to the brief service laying his younger brother to rest.

“It was here at Grace Church that Brian incarnated again his call to the parish priesthood. A

calling that consumed his energy, his spirit, his passion,” said Philip Mangano, Father Brian’s longtime friend. He recalled Brian’s work in Boston caring for prisoners, the poor, and the homeless.

Mr. Mangano said his friend served in “a priesthood that knew no boundaries, a mission that extended the walls of the church to coincide with the whole community. And in a ministry of incarnating a thousand good deeds, large and small, that fulfilled his calling to love.”

Mr. Mangano and the Rt. Rev. Murdoch settled the plain urn into the grave, close to the bird feeder, where a few pink roses still bloomed.

Many came forward silently to toss rose petals into the grave, add a shovel of dirt, or stand in prayer, gratitude, and reflection. In the background, Kathy Sheperd of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, a decades-long friend of Brian’s, played meditative violin.

Bill Murdoch read from his brother’s own prayer book, his strong voice muffled by emotion: “O Lord, support us, all the day long, til the shadows lengthen and the evening comes …”

Choir soprano Betsy Holcomb sang “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” and the others joined in.

“Our family is so blessed by all of you at Grace Church,” said the Rt. Rev. Murdoch. “All’s well that ends well, and Brian ended well. You all are part of that.”

Inside the warm rectory next door, it was the kind of party Father Brian would have loved. Good friends, family and strangers mingled, sharing tears and laughter, stories and photos, comforting one another. Food was simple, sandwiches and sweets prepared by parishioners, but the fellowship was rich.

“Brian was so happy here, and really had such a sense of community and belonging,” said his sister Donna Murdoch about the family’s decision to bury his remains on the Vineyard. “We knew God wanted him to go out from this place and lie in rest here. It was just perfect.”

Another sister, Karen Murdoch-Lahey, recalled the last time Brian had been home to attend a family funeral. Many there had remarked on how well he looked, how happy: “Brian kept saying to people, ‘You have to come to the Vineyard and meet the community.’ For a family as close as ours, community is so important. It was so evident that Brian found a second family here, he really did.”

“Brian and the parish both had a sense of becoming healthier; they grew spiritually together, they were involved in a love for mission and ministry on the Island,” said Bill Murdoch.

“We saw our brother at his very best on the Island. He loved the people, the place, the mission to less fortunate neighbors. Grace Church embodied the enthusiasm of my brother’s ministry that went well beyond the building. It was an easy and happy decision for us to inter our brother in the Memorial Garden at Grace Church.”

“We all are happy he’s home here with us,” said Grace Church member Phyllis Smith. “I know this is where he’d want to be. This is where he belongs, here with us. This is where he was going to be; he just loved the Island. He was going to live out his life here with us.”

“It touched my heart when the family decided they felt Brian should be back at Grace,” said Maureen O’Malley, parish administrator. She and Father Brian had developed a warm relationship after working together for barely a year. “It is nice we have a place in the Memorial Garden where we can go and just sit and listen, and just be. Even though I just feel him around, I think it is an honor for us to have him back at Grace.”

“In the weeks since Father Brian’s death, a strong bond has developed between his six siblings and members of the Grace congregation. I can see this continuing and growing even stronger over the years,” said DiAnn Ray, Grace Church senior warden.”As a way to continue the work begun while he was with us, his siblings have established a Father Brian Murdoch Memorial Fund.

“As the Rev. Dr. Jean Baptiste Ntegengwa of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts has shared,  ‘There are many persons who may become a priest or minister, but there are few that become real pastors — Brian Murdoch was a pastor.’”

“The whole Island was his parish, not just Grace Church,” observed Mr. Mangano. Close friends, the two men bonded through their work to combat homelessness.

In a moving tribute read aloud by church sexton Robert MacLean, Martha’s Vineyard poet laureate Arnie Reisman, a neighbor, described Father Brian:

“A good soul who walked among us costumed in black

So we can walk with him and not be blinded by his light.

Spellbinding, he reached into hearts, listened to the ticking,

Eyes on fire with comprehension forged with compassion,

He listened intently — and spoke with a language of empathy

He listened intently, then left too soon.

In body a man of the cloth, in spirit a man of the wind and air,

A gentle juggler of give and take … He was too alive not to be here still.

Totally hallowed now, these church grounds have been baptized

And blessed with the fire of Father Brian — this time.”