Remembering Murphyville, a Saint John Christmas tradition

Remembering Murphyville, a Saint John Christmas tradition

Blaine Harris has no problem remembering what his first childhood visit to Murphyville was like, even though it’s been 50 years.

The lifelong resident of West Saint John and owner of a neighborhood hair salon vividly recalls the experience of him and his family driving to the end of Milford Road at Christmas time in the early 1970s.

“It was magical,” Harris said. “It was all the places you knew in the community. You could see St Rose Church, you would see the schools, you would see everything that was in the Milford area.”

“Everything was included in this display and it was so magical when you drove there. The lights were everywhere, the little statuettes and the baby’s crib. Everything. It was really, really, really magical.”

Blaine Harris, a barber from Saint John, has lived his entire life on the West Side and has vivid memories of visiting Murphyville as a child. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

It was the creation of the late Lou Murphy, longtime Saint John councilman and three-year provincial MLA who was also a proud Westsider and a devout Catholic.

Murphy told the story to CBC News in December 1990. It began while his nephew was in the hospital battling a serious illness.

“The nurse who was on the case at the time, Betty Ketchum, found that instead of getting better, he was getting worse every day,” Murphy said.

“So she spoke to the surgeon, and then she called me and said if you can pray, you better start praying because we don’t expect him to get better. So I promised that I would put up a statue when he got well, Glory to Mary, and immediately he started to recover and very, very soon he was on his feet and out of the hospital.”

It was 1966, and Murphy, true to his word, erected a statue of the Virgin Mary on Thunder Hill, at the end of Milford Road.

An elderly man with gray hair, wearing a suit and tie, sits in front of a Christmas tree.
The late Lou Murphy, pictured here in 1990. (CBC News)

But he didn’t stop there.

Whenever Murphy had a positive change in his life, he built something else on the hill.

“I always think if you’re given a favor, you should accept that favor and give it back in some way to show your gratitude and appreciation. And that’s how I did it,” Murphy said.

Many of the additions were religious statues, but he also added local landmarks and Christmas decorations like Santa’s reindeer.

He soon covered it with Christmas lights and played Christmas music through a loudspeaker every December.

It didn’t take long for Murphy’s creation to draw a crowd.

A display of small buildings on a hillside covered in Christmas lights as a car drives past on the street in front.
Murphyville, in its heyday, drew hundreds of families every night. Blaine Harris remembers lines of cars parked on both sides of Milford Road. (CBC News)

“Hundreds and hundreds every night. They saw on both sides of Milford Road, all the way down to the loop at the end, they were lined with cars parked on either side of the road and everyone got out of their cars and went upstairs,” Harris said.

“It wasn’t something you stood by the side of the road and watched. It was, I think, your first kind of interactive display where everyone was welcome to go up and touch and feel and see and take pictures.”

Harris said it was the care Murphy put into his creations that brought people back.

“Everything looked like the structures in the environment it was trying to mimic,” he said.

“And Lou Murphy put a lot of hard, hard work into it. If you look into the school building, you see children sitting on a desk. If you look into the church, you see people in the pews.”

Marc Doiron’s family would visit her every Christmas from the late 1980s. Doiron, who now owns a sporting goods store in the area, said Murphyville has been accepted by the community.

A statue of the Virgin Mary flanked by a statue of Jesus, with a crucifix in the background.
The statue of the Virgin Mary was the beginning of Murphyville, placed there after Lou Murphy’s nephew survived a serious illness. Other religious figures followed over the years. (CBC News)

“It was such a small thing, but it was so huge back then,” he said.

Doiron also remembers the queues of cars that brought visitors up the hill on a road that ended in a loop.

“It took a long time for the cars to go through to get down there,” Doiron said.

“But I remember queuing in the cars and then seeing it, you know — it looked amazing at the time.”

Murphy always decorated it with young people in mind.

“Of course, no one is closer to God than children. And that’s why I like to do things that the kids like,” he told CBC.

A replica of a church on a large hill.
The replica of St. Rose’s Church photographed during the day. (CBC News)

Lou Murphy died in 1995 and his nephew Donnie Coholan, the man who inspired Murphyville, took over the care.

But by 2011, it had become too much for him to continue. Coholan dismantled Murphyville and let people choose from Murphy’s creations.

Harris said they now likely inhabit garages and basements around the west side of Saint John.

“Because, as we all know about the West Side hoarders, when we get something, we don’t let it go.”

Certainly not Marc Doiron. In the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown in December 2020, Doiron wanted to do something to brighten up the holiday season, something that people can safely take part in.

He was inspired by Murphyville and founded Doironville on his shop lot.

Since then it started and is in its third year of operation and growing.

“Like tonight, I’m going to dress up as Santa and go out again,” Doiron said in an interview earlier this week.

A nighttime Christmas display featuring plywood reindeer and decorated with Christmas lights.
The Christmas exhibit, which is part of Doironville, began in 2020 and was inspired by childhood trips to Murphyville. (Diron Sports Excellence)

“It’s quite nice to come back to the store and see that the parking lot is full of people and they’re all walking around.”

Doiron said he was told Donnie Coholan came to see the shows last year. He died earlier this month at the Rocmaura nursing home. He was 88.

A line in his obituary reads, “If you enjoyed the Murphyville Christmas lights, you owe a debt of gratitude to Donnie. The exhibit began as a tribute to Donnie’s recovery from a serious illness and was enjoyed by many for over 50 years.”

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