Sr. Lillian Murphy, RSM, led Mercy Housing for almost three decades

August 15, 2019


Sr. Lillian Murphy, RSM, the former president and chief executive officer of Mercy Housing, died July 25 in San Francisco. She was 78.

Sr Lillian Murphy
Sr. Murphy

"Her commitment and impact on affordable housing and to those in need will forever be felt," Mercy Housing President and Chief Executive Jane Graf said in announcing Sr. Murphy's death.

In 1987, Sr. Murphy became the nonprofit's second leader and she stayed in that role until she retired in 2014. Under her guidance, Mercy Housing expanded from a regional organization with 250 housing units and 20 staff members to one with almost 24,000 units housing more than 42,000 low-income individuals and families. Mercy Housing employs more than 1,500 people in 21 states, according to a statement from Mercy Housing.

Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, CHA's president and chief executive officer, got to know Sr. Murphy while serving on the leadership team for the Sisters of Mercy in St. Louis. The regional community provided financial support for Mercy Housing.

The pair often crossed paths as Sr. Murphy took leadership roles in health care, serving on the boards of Catholic Health Initiatives and its public juridic person, the Catholic Health Care Federation.

Sr. Haddad served on Mercy Housing's board at Sr. Murphy's invitation.

"Sr. Lillian's acute sense of business combined with her passion for serving people in need created the driving force behind Mercy Housing," Sr. Haddad said. "She was impelled by its mission and worked to integrate the founding values throughout the organization. People were inspired by Sr. Lillian's leadership. She was the face of Mercy Housing."

Sr. Murphy was born in San Francisco. She was the seventh of eight children born to Denis and Katherine Driscoll Murphy. She attended St. Peter's elementary and high schools in the Mission District, where she came to know the Sisters of Mercy. She entered the community in 1959 and was given the religious name of Sr. Mary Denis, professing perpetual vows in 1967.

She earned a bachelor's degree from Russell College in Burlingame, Calif., in 1965 and a master's in health services administration from University of California Berkeley in 1977.

Her ministries included associate administrator at St. Mary's Hospital in San Francisco, according to an obituary from Sisters of Mercy. During her tenure at St. Mary's she assisted in the conversion of the old Southern Pacific Hospital building into Mercy Terrace as housing for seniors. This project spurred her interest in the development of low-income housing.

"People sometimes think of not-for-profit housing as charity," Sr. Murphy said at a Mercy Housing property dedication. "It's not charity. It's justice. People have a right to safe, affordable housing. We are not just dealing with bricks and mortar. We are dealing with human lives. We want to be known for compassionate competence."

In 1998 she received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of San Francisco School of Nursing. In 1999 The Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California honored her with its Lifetime Achievement Award. The National Low Income Housing Coalition presented her with its leadership award in 2006. In 2009 she was inducted into Affordable Housing Finance's Hall of Fame, and in 2017 she was honored with the Dignity Award at the celebration of Mercy Housing's 35th anniversary.


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