Benedict J. Murdoch was born in Chatham in 1886 to Robert A. Murdoch and Mary Allen. He pursued higher education at St. Dunstan’s College (1904-08) and trained for the priesthood at the Grand Seminary in Quebec. After his ordination in 1911, he held several short-term positions, including a year as curate at Newcastle.
Reverend B.J. Murdoch, a priest and novelist, is best known for his book “The Red Vineyard” (1928), a memoir recounting his experiences as a chaplain during the First World War. His work inspired other priests to shape their ministries based on their own wartime experiences. Reverend Murdoch was referred to as the “Shepherd of the Woods” during his life, a title now inscribed on his tombstone.
After his ordination, Reverend Murdoch primarily served as a priest in New Brunswick, though he spent some time in Baltimore, Maryland in 1914. That same year, his first creative work—a short story—was published in Rosary magazine. In 1915, he enlisted as chaplain to the 132nd North Shore Battalion, a unit in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War. The battalion set sail for England in October 1916.
Throughout the war, Reverend Murdoch fulfilled his chaplain duties using a “portable altar,” as he described it in The Red Vineyard:
“After a few days a box about one foot and a half long, one foot high and nine inches wide, arrived. It was made of wood covered with a kind of grey cloth, with strips of black leather about the edges and small pieces of brass at every corner. There was leather grips on it so that it could be carried as a satchel. It was my little portable altar, containing everything necessary for saying Mass. One half opened and stood upright from the part containing the table of the altar, which when opened out was three feet long. Fitted into the oak table was the little marble altar-stone, without which one may not say Mass. In the top of the upright part was a square hole in which the crucifix fitted to stand above the altar; on either side were holders to attach the candlesticks. From the wall that formed a compartment in the upright portion, where the vestments were kept, the altar cards unfolded; these were kept in place by small brass clips attached to the upright. Chalice, ciborium, missal and stand, cruets, wine, altar-breads, bell, linens, etc., were in compartments beneath the altar table. The whole was wonderfully compact and could be carried with one hand.”
He spent his time offering guidance, inspiration, and hope to young soldiers who seemed lost. By the end of the war, he had served in France, Germany, and Belgium. He also encouraged another young priest and writer from New Brunswick, Reverend R. Myles Hickey, to enlist in World War II, as recounted in Hickey’s book, “The Scarlet Dawn” (1949).
After the war, Reverend Murdoch returned to New Brunswick, where he served as a pastor at Jacquet River in Restigouche County and Douglastown (now Miramichi) from 1921 to 1930. During this time, he developed combat stress reaction or shell shock. In 1932, upon his doctor’s recommendation, he retired from his pastoral duties and the ministry. Father Murdoch then secluded himself in a cabin in the woods of Bartibog, ten kilometers east of Chatham, for almost thirty years. It was during this time of seclusion that Murdoch wrote most of his books, including “Part Way Through” (1946) and “Far Away Place” (1952), which were spiritual successors to the autobiographical “The Red Vineyard”. According to Father Leon Creamer, who was writing a book on Murdoch in 2009, the only payments he received during his years in Bartibog were two-dollar Mass stipends for each day he celebrated Mass and money from selling his books, as he hadn’t served in the army long enough to receive a pension. All of his books were written in longhand during this time, as he had no typewriter.
On April 29, 1971, just two months before the 60th anniversary of his ordination, Reverend B.J. Murdoch was honored by Pope Paul VI with the title of “Honorary Prelate to His Holiness,” becoming a Monsignor. He spent the remaining years of his life at Mount St. Joseph Nursing Home in his hometown of Chatham. On January 31, 1973, he passed away at Hotel-Dieu Hospital in Miramichi at the age of 86.
Reverend Murdoch left a legacy as one of Canada’s finest writers of faith-based pastoral literature. His major influences included authors Agnes and Egerton Castle, whom he had met and stayed with in England.
Murdoch’s writing enjoyed some critical success. Fred Cogswell described his memoirs as significant wartime narratives that “more than compensate for their lack of action by the picture they give of the unique mind of their creator.” “The Red Vineyard,” in particular, was highly successful, well-received by critics, and popular with readers. The book went through nine editions during Murdoch’s lifetime. “Alone With Thee” (1963), a collection of religious readings, also frequently went out of stock and had to be reprinted. Fittingly, the title of his final autobiographical work, “Far Away Place” (1952), alludes to the sense of solace he found in his distance from the rest of society.
In addition to his memoirs, Reverend Murdoch wrote novels such as “Souvenir” (1928) and “The Menders” (1953). These works, however, did not achieve the same level of popularity or critical acclaim as his non-fiction. The same can be said for his collections of short stories, “Sprigs” (1955) and “The Murphy’s Come In” (1965). His readers seemed to prefer the more immediate social realism of his firsthand accounts.
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