TAMPA — Every church has one — a quiet force that gets ideas on the drawing board, pledges lined up and projects completed. At St. Lawrence Catholic Church for half a century, that force was Polly Murray.
As the lay administrator to Monsignor Laurence Higgins, Mrs. Murray saw the church through significant changes. She played key roles in establishing a provisional sanctuary and school, and served as unofficial project manager when the permanent church building was dedicated 20 years later. Mrs. Murray also helped design the multipurpose Higgins Hall that opened in 1994.
Mrs. Murray, who worked in tandem with Higgins to run a church serving 3,000 families and the St. Lawrence Catholic School, died Sunday. She was 79 and suffered from a variety of health problems, including pancreatic cancer.
"She could learn anything; I don't know anybody cleverer," said Higgins, 83, now a pastor emeritus at St. Lawrence.
The two worked together for 50 years. Both retired in 2007.
She was more laser knife than bulldozer, a slight woman who wore little jewelry and avoided the spotlight. But because of her, things got done.
"In the way a corporation works, I would say she was the chief operating officer," said former Gov. Bob Martinez, a friend.
Audrey Boston, a St. Lawrence worker hired by Mrs. Murray 25 years ago, saw her old boss staying on top of construction projects from the design phase on, including the eventual church offices in Higgins Hall.
"She understood the questions to ask," said Boston, 55. "She met with all the people who needed to be met with and knew what needed to get done."
Mrs. Murray and Higgins intersected in the late 1950s, not long after she moved with her family from Minnesota. He lived across the street.
"He was Father Higgins at the time," said Tim Murray, 57, her son. "She said she wanted us to go to a Catholic school."
Higgins, who had just been assigned to the Tampa area to open a new parish, hired Mrs. Murray as his administrator.
Higgins and Mrs. Murray were a team by 1959, when the St. Lawrence parish opened. A provisional church building was finished in 1961, the same year a parish school building was completed for 162 students.
Her efforts helped get the St. Lawrence Catholic School to its current capacity of more than 600 students. After launching the pre-kindergarten program in a former orphanage, the church in 1998 renamed the building the Polly Murray Early Childhood Center.
Polly DeVinny was born in North St. Paul, Minn. She got a full scholarship offer to the University of Minnesota, but instead married John Murray, an airline agent, and started a family. Though raised as a Methodist, she converted to Catholicism.
John Murray died in 1971 in an accidental drowning, leaving his wife a widowed mother of six boys. Mrs. Murray responded as she always had: She managed.
Her sons are remembering those qualities as they cope with her loss. "She was the strongest person I ever knew," Tim Murray said.