Alcoholic opens home in St. Paul to help others like him
The Catholic Spirit is running an occasional series focused on the works of mercy. This week, we highlight comforting the afflicted, a spiritual work of mercy.
On a hot July night in 2009, a sleek Audi A8 is parked at a bar on St. Paul’s Grand Avenue. It’s well beyond last call, but the car will remain there until dawn.
Happens all the time. Revelers have too much to drink, call a cab from the bar to take them home, then come the next day after they’re sober to retrieve their vehicle.
This scene is different. The inebriated bar patron chooses to sleep off his drunkeness inside the car overnight.
He has no other choice. The disease of alcoholism has claimed his house, his marriage and most of the relationships with people who could take him home.
The next morning, without showering or cleaning up, he drags himself into work, hoping the employees won’t notice his condition.
But he realizes that’s not likely.
He’s their CEO.
Still, despite doing this night after night for almost two months, he has yet to hit rock bottom. Three failed marriages doesn’t do it. Losing his house doesn’t do it. Nearly killing someone when he rammed the person’s car doing 125 miles per hour doesn’t do it.
What will it take?
Getting a ‘God shot’
The answer came on the morning of Aug. 6, 2009 when he landed in the Ramsey County detox center for the umpteenth time. He opened his eyes in an unfamiliar place — an actual bed — and could reach out and touch someone on each side without getting up.
He landed there by getting drunk at a bar and stumbling and rolling down the steep and famous Grand Avenue hill just off of Summit Avenue near the Cathedral of St Paul.
Then, in a fortuitous turn of events he calls a “God shot,” he stopped rolling down the hill right in front of a sober house. Two of the men living there easily recognized his drunken state and hauled him to detox.
He has the men — whom he was never able to find later — to thank for where he is today. He left detox three days later a changed man, and he now is dedicating the rest of his life to helping other men battle alcoholism. He founded Trinity Sober Homes in St. Paul on Jan. 1 of this year, and he is directing all of his boundless energy and ambition into helping men overcome the drinking demon in their lives.
His name is Tim Murray. And, he’s an alcoholic.
‘I give up’
Though his past has hurt Murray and those around him, it does not define him. Thanks to some timely help along the way from a priest, Father Martin Fleming, who has been helping people like him for more than three decades, he has managed to stay sober since that fateful stay in detox.
In fact, his journey to sobriety began moments after he woke up and discovered he had, once again, landed in detox. Like all of the other times, he did not know how he got there.
“Literally, I physically stood up and just leaned back with my head toward the sky and got on my knees and started crying and just said, ‘You know what? I give up.’” said Murray, 53, who spent his childhood first in Mound, then in Mahtomedi.
“I felt like I did this trust fall into God’s hands, who caught me, and by the grace of God and the fellowship of the 12-step program, I haven’t had a desire to drink since Aug. 6 of 2009.”
After leaving detox, he decided it was time to live in a sober house. His search revealed that there were many to choose from in St. Paul, where he lived for a time and where his mother Joan still lives. In fact, he calls St. Paul “Ground Zero” for sober homes, with nearly 50 in the city, which he says is more than any other city in the United States.
He shopped around carefully, then picked one. After spending a year there, he decided it was time to live on his own.
Enter, Father Fleming. The 85-year-old retired priest and U.S. Army colonel owns a cluster of four homes he calls Bethany Village, named after the New Testament town where Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived.
And, make no mistake, Father Fleming has raised many “Lazaruses” from the depths of alcoholism and other addictions and demons since he first bought the homes in 1977.
He loves all who walk through the doors of Bethany Village but seems to have a special place in his heart for Murray, an energetic, affable and brutally honest Irishman.
Back in 2009, Murray saw an ad for a place that offered good living quarters at a very low rent. He made a stop there, not realizing he was landing on the doorstep of Bethany Village. He walked in and introduced himself to Father Fleming. A friendship was born.
“Since my first meeting with Father, he and I sort of hit it off,” Murray said. “Partly because, I think, Father is Irish and he can smell Irish blarney from a mile away. He called me on my Irish blarney from Day One. We had this little code between us, that [Father Fleming] says, ‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll leave my collar at the door if you leave your ego at the door. And, we’ll have a no-B.S. relationship.’ And, I said, ‘That’s a deal.’
“Father has a great affinity for alcoholics and part of it is he just loves the brutal honesty that comes along with being an alcoholic — the willingness to admit openly our faults. One of the promises that comes true in this program is that we neither regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. Or, as [the cartoon character] Popeye used to say, ‘I am who I am. And, that’s all I got.’”
What Murray’s got these days is a powerful business skill set that quickly moved to get Trinity Sober Homes up and running within a year after first discussing the idea with Father Fleming. Though alcoholism got him fired from many jobs, including a handful as CEO of small companies, he never lost his sharp business sense.
A Catholic flavor
The other savvy mind behind Trinity Sober Homes belongs to Father Fleming, who recognized the potential of the man he mentored at Bethany Village for almost two years. It was a no-brainer to place the challenge of starting a sober home in the hands of a man used to running companies.
“He has learned from extensive experience and hard knocks,” Father Fleming said. “He’s a natural leader, and he’s kind of a pied piper. He gets in front of a crowd and whistles his tune and they fall in line.
“He’s fun and he’s witty and he’s smart, and he was game [for the challenge] and he wanted to turn a new page in the chapter of his life. I just thought he would be a good guy to do it.”
Yet, neither Father Fleming nor Murray wanted to add just another sober home to an already crowded market. They had a different idea in mind — a sober home rooted in a Catholic atmosphere.
The Catholic flavor in this 5,150-square-foot, 26-room house in St. Paul is unmistakable, although it isn’t officially affiliated with or sponsored by the archdiocese.
It is called St. Michael House — in reference to the archangel who defeated Satan in the war in heaven mentioned in the Book of Revelation — with a small plaque positioned right next to the front door. Then, there’s the small meditation room just past the living room, where Gregorian chant music can be heard throughout the day.
Finally, there’s the large 6-foot by 9-foot crucifix on the wall of the stairway going upstairs. It was donated by Murray’s aunt, Sister Mary Lou Murray, a retired Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet.
But the Catholic influence goes beyond the visual. Mass is celebrated once a month, and spiritual coaching is available to all of the 12 men currently living there. The home serves men 40 and older who pay a monthly rent and provide volunteer service hours at the home.
“We like being authentically and unapologetically Catholic,”?Murray said. “We tell people there are pictures of Jesus. There’s a huge cross on the wall. You don’t have to believe any of this [Catholic doctrine], but you’re going to get exposed to it.
“You do not need to be Catholic to live here. You do have to believe that there is a higher power and it’s not you, and you have to be open to being presented with the Catholic faith, the sacraments. We have Mass here on the last Sunday of every month. Mass is not required. I’m sneaky in that we offer a fabulous meal after the Mass. You have to go to the Mass to get the meal, but you don’t have to go to the Mass.”
Judging by the fact that the house is filled to capacity with 12 men and currently has a waiting list, the Catholic part isn’t a problem for residents. One of them, Mike Gilligan, returned to his Catholic roots and now goes to Mass regularly at St. Peter Claver in St. Paul.
“I started going [to Mass] again, which I hadn’t done for probably 30, 40 years,” said Gilligan, 66. “I usually go there every Sunday. In fact, I told a few guys in here about it, so there are two or three of us who go over there at 8 o’clock every Sunday. . . . I enjoy going there and meeting some of the people.”
Although Murray deliberately focuses on today, especially when it comes to sobriety, he also has a vision for the future of Trinity Sober Homes.
“We believe that there is room for growth,” said Murray, who teaches part time at the University of St. Thomas at the Opus College of Business and also does consulting work for small businesses.
“We believe that we should expand. The challenge is, we need money. The future right now for me is really to use these gifts that I have been blessed with, which is to go raise more money. . . . God will touch the hearts of the right people who have the resources, who believe in what we’re doing and would step forward and say, ‘I would love to help you. How can I help?’”
Depending on God
It’s all part of a simple mission and a simple life that Murray now leads. At times, he still dresses like an executive. But he now clearly understands one thing, and it is something he reminds himself of every morning when he walks into the Cathedral for Mass, a Mass he almost never misses:
Without God, he is nothing. It is a truth he has in common with fellow alcoholics in recovery.
“We are absolutely dependent upon God every single day to maintain our sobriety,” he said. “Everyone else on the planet has an option, but we have an air hose. We’re underwater and our air hose is connected to an oxygen supply called God.
And, if we don’t activate that air hose, we’ll die. For me, to drink is to die, either a short-term or more likely a long-term, painful death. So, I don’t have an option. I need to get on my knees every morning and say to my innermost self that I am an alcoholic and I need you, God, to get me through this day.”
With that message firmly planted in his head as he walks out the door of the cathedral, he merely plows ahead “just waiting for the next person that God sends my way to help.”