St. Margaret

Fr. Murphy

Built by a layman who later became its pastor

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Father Michael Murphy: builder, benefactor, founder, pastor

“It took me six years to build the church — three years to clear the land and three years to build the church.”

With those words by the late Father Michael Murphy, founder of St. Margaret Church, comes a history filled with an evangelical fervor that built up the Catholic Church in western North Carolina.

Murphy, not yet a priest in 1950, arrived in North Carolina from Detroit in September of that year. Right away, he turned his attention to helping build churches in the mountain region of the state. He traveled to the town bearing his surname, where Father Lawrence Neuman was trying to build a church with financial help from Murphy families throughout the country.

After visiting there, Murphy went on to Sylva and assisted in building St. Mary Church in memory of his late parents. The church was dedicated in August 1955. Soon thereafter, he also aided in constructing the Newman Center for Catholic students at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.

The lay missionary later bought 33 acres of land in Maggie Valley. A two-story building was
converted for use as a chapel, where a Waynesville pastor celebrated Mass during tourist season. Murphy furnished the chapel with statues that had belonged to his mother.

The owner of a local restaurant suggested that Murphy purchase another property for sale in the area, owned by a retired Methodist minister. Murphy built a 25-unit motel on the site, naming it Falling Waters. Later, Bishop Vincent Waters of Raleigh gave him permission to build a church on the land, and in August 1969, the new St. Margaret Church was dedicated.

Bishop Waters urged the zealous Murphy to ponder becoming a priest. After prayerful discernment, Murphy studied at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana and in May 1972, he was ordained into the priesthood by then-Bishop Michael J. Begley of Charlotte. Father Murphy was 80 years old at the time of his ordination.

After serving for a year at a North Carolina coastal parish, Murphy returned to the church he had built in Maggie Valley. As pastor of St. Margaret Church, he built a house that later would serve as a convent and a retreat house. In February 1977, the retreat building burned to ruins, but the flame of evangelization that burned in Father Murphy’s heart raged on.

Father Murphy continued to own and operate Falling Waters Motel. Under Bishop Begley’s direction, the motel was renovated for use as the Living Waters Catholic Reflection Center, and today remains a popular retreat spot year-round. In 1981, the pastor also donated a building on the land to the diocese for use as a parish hall.

Father Murphy’s presence remained a constant in the parish community until the priest’s death at the age of 99 in April 1991. A parish hall, built and dedicated in the early 1990s, was named Murphy-Garland Parish Hall in honor of the priest who gave so much to the community.

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