This year’s St. Patrick of Armagh annual homecoming picnic in Catawissa was missing a familiar face: its founder, Billy Murphy.
For 42 years Murphy was the face of St. Patrick’s Rock Church, acting as president of the Preservation Society that rescued the church in 1972 after it had been abandoned in 1925. He organized each picnic since then to fund the upkeep of the church originally built in 1866.
This past Sunday, Aug. 19, a near record crowd gathered at the old church to celebrate the annual homecoming picnic, which today stands because of the work and dedication he put into it.
That’s according to his grandson, David Murphy, who now serves as the interim president of the Preservation Society and organized the picnic this year. He said without his grandfather’s work, he wasn’t sure if the church would still be around.
The picnic is held each year and features a renowned dinner, drinks, games for kids and adults alike, a Mass in the Old Rock Church is held at the beginning of the event. The proceeds for the event provide the sole funding for upkeep on the church, its grounds and its cemetery.
Since the picnic started 42 years ago, the Preservation Society has raised more than $1 million that has been used to keep the church taken care of.
Following each picnic, restoration projects took place in the form of new roofs, new pavilions, expanding the cemetery — an unheard of endeavor in an abandoned parish burial ground — and improving the huge screened dining area that feeds several hundred people each August.
According to the 2018 picnic newsletter, profits from the 2017 picnic were used to complete lighting in the cemetery, which enhances security at the complex.
Murphy said the crowd was about the same size as last years. He said he had hoped there would be more people due to the fair weather, but said it’s still was one of the largest the society has seen since the picnic’s inception.
“It was a decent turnout, but it wasn’t a record like I was hoping,” Murphy said. “It was probably one of our top three or four years.”
A big crowd made for a busy day, something Murphy said he was thankful for. He said it kept him distracted form the fact that his grandfather wasn’t there with him.
“It was good that I was busy all day because I didn’t have to think about it too much,” he said. “But it was a sentimental day remembering my grandpa. Hopefully he’s proud of what I did.”
He said while the crowd didn’t beat last year’s size, the kitchen did come about 25 tickets shy from being sold out of dinner tickets. He said the total amount raised from the event is still being estimated.
Murphy said serving as interim president has been an honor and he hopes that the Preservation Society’s board will let him keep doing it by voting him in as president in September. He said it’s a tradition he wants to keep in his family.
“My plan is to keep running this like my grandpa did,” Murphy said.
As in past years, the Murphys welcomed descendants of those interred at St. Patrick’s who travel from a dozen states for the annual fundraising picnic that keeps the cemetery in pristine condition.
Other officers are Matt Pross, first vice president; Steve Conley, second vice president; John Painter, treasurer; and Kim Conley, secretary. Board members are Charles Hayden, Del Viehland, Jim Conley and Paul Mangan.
Murphy thanked the volunteers, who he said make it possible every year. He said they were a major support network in a year where the picnic was missing a important part of the team.
“As long as they keep supporting us for the next 40 years I don’t foresee any problems,” he said. “My main goal was to show we’re still going to have the same picnic my grandpa would have had, and I think we did that.”