By the time the incense began burning to start the traditional service at St. Titus Episcopal Church Wednesday night, 300 people had crowded into a space capable of seating 100.
At the fourth annual celebration of Pauli Murray's life at St. Titus, community members crowded the church Murray worshipped at as a young girl to celebrate her new status as an Episcopal saint.
"There's a particular interest all over town and people are really hungry to know more about it," St. Titus Deacon Sarah Woodard said.Murray was a leader in civil, women's, labor and LGBT rights. She also published literary works, such Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family, in 1956.
In 1977, Murray was ordained as the first female African-American Episcopal priest.
Each year, July 1 will be a day to remember and celebrate Murray's work and accomplishments.
In the Episcopal church, candidates for sainthood must be recommended to the main governing body of the whole church, called the General Convention. Recommendations must be of someone who has had “prior use,” meaning they have been recognized in a community before.
In Murray's case, the local Diocese sent a resolution to the General Convention, which referred the resolution to the Committee on Liturgy and Music. The group checks a person's background and history.
"When you lift up somebody as a virtuous person and you really want to emulate their life, you want to make sure they haven't been in the National Enquirer lately," Bishop Michael Curry said.
The resolution then moves on to the Convention's House of Deputies and House of Bishops, which must approve the resolution or recommendation. If approved, the person is then included in the church's book of saints, called Holy Women, Holy Men.
Some of Murray's distant relatives attended the ceremony to help commemorate her life. Stephanie Yarbrough Davis is Murray's third cousin. She said she's still learning more about Murray, despite having met her before Murray died in 1985.
"I'm learning that it's an honor (to be related to Murray) and we really have to learn how to honor the legacy she left us," Davis said.For Davis, the most inspiring accomplishment of Murray's was her fight to take down a fence that separated whites and blacks in Maplewood Cemetery on Kent Street.
Murray didn't live to see the fence come down, but Davis said she was constantly pushing the younger generations to pursue the project.
"(When I first met her) I thought she was kind of mean ... because she was getting on our case about the cemetery," Davis said. "She was telling me that our generation was dropping the ball."
Eventually, the City of Durham removed the fence.
"(Pauli Murray) was one of these people who was a bridge person," Bishop Curry said. "She was a descendent of both slaves and slave owners, she was a woman long before her time who did things others said were impossible to do." Murray became one of the first African-American women lawyers; she worked in local underserved communities.
"(Murray) did all of that because she was a Christian. And in a time when the word 'Christian' has been held hostage by negativity and sometimes bigotry, it's time to raise up somebody who represents a way of being Christian that's grounded in the love and the justice and the compassion of the goodness of God," Bishop Curry said.
Murray's childhood house still stands in the West End of Durham on Carroll Street. The local Pauli Murray Project hopes to eventually turn the house into a functioning historic site.
This blog post appeared in print on Jul 25, 2012 with the headline "Sainthood suits her."