WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Fr. Wilf Murchland has been a leader in education and in his religious order during his 50 years as a priest.
Becoming a priest is never an absolute choice. "It's always conditioned," maintains Holy Cross Father Wilfrid Murchland. "There are always influences that help you decide."
In his native New Brunswick in the 1950s and 1960s the Catholic priesthood was respected and many young men embraced the vocation. Half-jokingly, Murchland says New Brunswick in those years produced priests as Alberta produced beef and wheat.
It also helped that Murchland was raised in a devout family, served as an altar boy and spent much of his youth among priests.
"The origin of my vocation first of all is family but second of all it was education," he said in a recent interview.
The Holy Cross Fathers operated the boarding school he attended so when he graduated, he simply joined them, not without first trying to complicate things.
Just before graduation he met with the rector and told him he was thinking of joining either the Jesuits or the Holy Cross.
"The priest's reaction was, 'Well, I think they are both good choices.' Period. He didn't twist my elbow or anything," recalled Murchland. "I was so impressed with that, I actually decided to join the Holy Cross."
Murchland, 75, is currently marking 50 years as a Holy Cross priest. Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Sherwood Park, where he serves as an associate pastor, will celebrate the occasion Feb. 10 with a jubilee Mass and a banquet.
The event might also serve as a farewell for Murchland, who in March is leaving for Welland, Ont. to begin a three-year term as vicar superior of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. This is the second time since the late 1980s that he has been elected to lead the congregation.
"Time passed quickly and I think there was never a dull moment," he says as he reflects on his half century of service. "It was always very enriching and I would say, overall, very happy years."
The most fulfilling part of being a priest for Murchland is diversity. "You've got such a variety of people in the Church," he says. "The diversity of gifts and talents among the people is incredible. It's challenging but it's also enriching."
He has always being attracted to variety, even geographically. "New challenges are always invigorating."
Except for his 13 years in Sherwood Park, Murchland has, for the most part, served as a theologian and adult educator.
He was president of Newman Theological College for almost seven years in the 1980s and is one of more than 25 Holy Cross priests to have served in the Edmonton Archdiocese in the past 45 years.
Born and raised in Debec, N.B., Murchland was the fifth of nine children. His father, Gerald, was a travelling cook who worked in lumber camps, hotels and wherever he could find work.
His mother, Eileen, was a homemaker and an Irish Catholic of deep faith who made sure the family attended church regularly and said their prayers.
Murchland had frequent contact with priests on a regular basis, both as an altar server and a student. Gradually, he developed a fondness for the vocation.
"There was something about the priests," he recalls. "They were always very happy, smiling, laughing and joking. I appreciated that. They seemed happy in their skin, sort of thing."
Best of all, the Holy Cross Fathers were teachers and Murchland wanted to be a teacher. "It was the right combination. They looked like well-adjusted, happy people, good teachers."
The town of Debec didn't have a high school so at age 14 Murchland moved to Memramcook Valley to attend St. Joseph's College, a boarding school run by the Holy Cross Fathers. He graduated from St. Joseph's seven years later, at age 21, with a bachelor's degree.
"I had a BA so I could have gone on to become a lay teacher but I had already decided to go to the novitiate (in Vermont) to test my vocation."
In 1959, after he had made his final vows with the order, Murchland was sent to the Gregorian University in Rome to study theology. Years later he would obtain a doctorate in theology at the Institut Catholique in Paris.
He was ordained a Holy Cross priest Feb. 17, 1963 and is proud of having been a student of the Second Vatican Council, one of the most fulfilling periods of his priestly life. He was in Rome at the time and many of his professors were involved in the council.
"That whole thrust was always important to me," he says. "That explains my involvement with the lay ministries because there was whole shift from a clerical Church to a lay-centred Church, moving from ordination to Baptism."
Modeling that new vision of Church has been a key part of his ministry all along.
"We take Vatican II for granted," he laments. "But if you were to try to form a parish in the image of pre-Vatican II turning the altar around to the wall and using Latin, it wouldn't fly. Many things are grounded in Vatican II."
Over the years, Murchland taught in a number of places across the country, including Notre Dame High School in Welland, Ont., St. Thomas University in Fredericton, the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon and Newman College in Edmonton.
During the early 1970s he spent four years as an executive assistant in the national office of religious education of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in Ottawa.
In 1993, he to moved St. John's, Nfld., to serve as archdiocesan director of religious education. He also started a lay ministries program in his six years there.
"As you can see, my trajectory is in education, theology and religious education," Murchland said.
He returned to Edmonton 13 years ago to serve at OLPH, the only parish he has served on a permanent basis. "What a great experience this has been. Father Jack (Hamilton) is very collegial. He is a Vatican II priest so that's helped a great deal."