Author leads readers to holy sites throughout Missouri


Patrick Murphy wears rose-window-colored glasses on his jaunts through Missouri’s villages and metropolises.

Raised “culturally Catholic” before being properly welcomed into the Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, Mr. Murphy combines the “energy of a convert” with the familiarity of a “lifer” while on pilgrimage to holy places throughout the state.

“I think I find everything a bit more exciting,” he asserted, “as in, ‘Look at this! And then there’s this! That’s really cool!’”

Mr. Murphy’s sense of wonder, reverence and humor are on full display in his warmly written and delightfully illustrated new book, Places to Pray: Holy Sites in Catholic Missouri (Reedy Press).

He plans to make a presentation about the book and sign copies from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, March 26, at the Missouri River Regional Library, 214 Adams St. in Jefferson City.

The book, with destinations organized by diocese, is the result of a year’s worth of pilgrimages to busy street corners and quiet hamlets.

Featured locales in the Jefferson City diocese include: St. Louis of France Church in Bonnots Mill; St. Peter Church in Brush Creek; St. Paul Church in Center; St. George Church in Hermann; St. Stephen Church in Indian Creek; the Cathedral of St. Joseph, Immaculate Conception Church and St. Peter Church in Jefferson City; the National Shrine of Mary Mother of the Church in Laurie; the Shrine of St. Patrick in St. Patrick; the Sacred Heart Chapel in Sedalia; and the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows in Starkenburg.

“l knew when I started this thing that it was going to be some kind of journey,” Mr. Murphy stated. “When people embark on any kind of pilgrimage, you know something is going to happen, although you’re not sure what, but you’re open to it.

“So I pursued this with the same openness as going on a pilgrimage: ‘God, just show me,’” he said.

“And in visiting such a variety of places, from tiny little stone churches at the end of rural roads, to the massive basilicas in the cities, I got a broader sense of my religion,” he stated. “I could see it’s bigger and more diverse than I ever imagined.”

“The right place”

Mr. Murphy is a familiar face and voice in and near St. Louis. He has produced scores of documentary films about the city’s history and culture and for many years was the announcer for the local PBS affiliate.

His The Irish in St. Louis: From Shanty to Lace Curtain, published a year ago, drew wide acclaim in his home city.

He and his wife, Annie, grew steady into their pilgrimage shoes. Both were raised by Catholic parents who did not regularly practice their faith.

“My dad got home from the War and kind of lapsed,” Mr. Murphy noted. “I think he just didn’t want anyone telling him what to do.”

Nonetheless, “I always felt Catholic,” the author stated. “Genetically Catholic. Culturally Catholic.

“And I do believe there is a culture to Catholicism,” he said. “Just by talking to someone, it pops up on your radar within 30 seconds to a minute that they’re Catholic.

“When that happens, the light clicks on, you feel a kinship, and before you know it, you’re talking about soccer. Or fish fries. Or what high school you went to,” he said.

He pointed to the legions of Catholic artists, writers and filmmakers, some of whom try to escape their Catholic upbringing, but to no avail.

“We’re drawn to themes that are important to all of us — redemption, forgiveness, guilt,” he said.

And then there’s the unmistakable Catholic sense of humor — filtered, in Mr. Murphy’s case, through the wit of his Irish ancestors.

“We laugh at ourselves,” he noted. “We don’t want other people to laugh at us, but we’re good at laughing at ourselves. And we have a lot to laugh about.

“I don’t know if whenever Presbyterians or Methodists get together, they talk about being Presbyterian or Methodist,” he stated. “But when Catholics get together, we talk about being Catholic.”

About 15 years ago, Mr. and Mrs. Murphy went to Mass together in St. Ambrose Church on The Hill, St. Louis’s famously Italian neighborhood.

“We’re good at doing things in parallel,” said Mr. Murphy. “We hadn’t been to Mass in a long time — and we both looked at each other and said, ‘This is it. We’re gonna’ do it. Where do you sign up? We’re in the right place. Let’s quit wasting time.’

“So, we converted,” he said. “And since then, we’ve been extremely active” — first at St. Ambrose, and now at Holy Redeemer Parish in the suburb of Webster Groves, where Mr. Murphy’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather received their sacraments.

Not crazy

Mr. Murphy said Places to Pray is a convergence of topics that excite him — including history, architecture, art, ethnic cultures and Catholic spirituality.

“And it’s an opportunity to extend the journey of your own faith,” he stated.

He marvels at how Catholics long ago realized that creating sacred, other-worldly environments helps people encounter God in prayer and really listen for his response.

“These are spaces that elevate you through architecture and artistry and music and light — what we often refer to as ‘bells and smells,’” he said.

“They rely heavily on the senses to be able to take you to a place where you’re more receptive to prayer,” he stated. “I like that. It recognizes our humanity and the gift of our imaginations.”

Interspersed among the author’s bite-size chapters on shrines, basilicas, monasteries and chapels are simple explanations of Catholic concepts such as veneration of Mary and the saints; relics; the Rosary; special types of prayer such as Ignatian spirituality and the Divine Mercy Chaplet; and miracles.

“These are basically things that make a lot of non-Catholics think we’re crazy,” said Mr. Murphy. “In focusing on some of them, I try to bring out the beauty and the truth and the reasons behind them.”

He noted that many St. Louisans don’t venture very often into the heartland.

“I was pleasantly surprised and was enlightened when I did,” he said. “I went into so many Catholic communities, particularly around Jefferson City, that have amazing histories and strong traditions and vestiges of their ethnic cultures.”

He noted that when many European immigrants arrived in decades and centuries past, one of the first things they did was build a church.

“These places are sources of strong community and connections with history and identity,” he said. “They built these noble and beautiful structures as places for prayer and community. And in the case of more than a few, they were also saying to those around them, ‘We’re here now, and we’re not going anywhere — whether you like it or not.’”

“So quiet”

While gathering information and taking photos, Mr. Murphy was struck by the friendliness of local parishioners and their eagerness to share stories about their communities.

He was drawn to the stained-glass windows in St. Stephen Church in Indian Creek, installed in 1944 in memory of a parishioner who was killed in World War II.

“Little things like that that show me the power both of saints and communities,” said Mr. Murphy.

Also notable to him were the Shrine of the Miraculous Medal on the grounds of a 200-year-old old Vincentian seminary in Perryville, the inescapably French Catholic aura of the village of Old Mines and its St. Joachim and Ann Church, and the early-morning sunlight reflecting off the rustic stones of St. Peter Church in Brush Creek.

“Brush Creek was an amazing experience,” he recalled. “Just getting there allows you a lot of quiet time in your own mind, driving through some breathtaking countryside.”

Venerable Augustus Tolton, a son of two enslaved people, was baptized in 1854 where St. Peter Church now stands. He grew up to become the Roman Catholic Church’s first recognizably Black priest in the United States.

Names on headstones in the nearby cemetery point to waves of immigration in past centuries. But the section where enslaved people were laid to rest contains no names.

“The place really speaks to you,” Mr. Murphy said. “It’s so quiet, yet so much had happened there.”

A time to whisper

Mr. Murphy hopes people won’t just read about places featured and photographed in his book.

He wants them to get up and go.

“That feeling you get when you travel to places like Conception or Ava or Old Mines or Center — it’s like you’re passing through time,” he said, “or time is standing still.”

“You’re lifted out of the muck of your daily life,” he stated. “You’re transformed, you’re transfigured.

Besides, he said, “it’s just good to get out and see this beautiful state of Missouri! This is a beautiful state, and even the most beautiful church pales in comparison to God’s creation that you encounter along the road.”

All of this, the author hopes, will draw people into a state of prayer.

“A lot of people think they’re supposed to be talking nonstop to God,” he noted. “I think we sometimes forget that God is just desperately trying to get a word in edgewise.

“He doesn’t do as many burning bushes as he used to,” the author stated. “He’s into whispers now. If you listen, you’ll hear and understand him.”

Places to Pray: Holy Sites in Catholic Missouri is available in bookstores and at