Colombian immigrant remembered for humility, generosity, deep faith

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Date: Saturday, April 10, 2010

TROY-- Rosa Murillo was a tiny woman in her 80s in a worn coat and stocking cap who shuffled silently through the city's roughest neighborhoods, rooting around in garbage cans and occasionally crawling into a Dumpster, collecting cans and bottles for redemption.

She was often mistaken for a homeless person.

In truth, Murillo, a Colombian woman of humble birth who worked as a nanny, was a global philanthropist who donated thousands of dollars to the poor in developing countries through missionaries around the world -- one nickel at a time.

Murillo died Tuesday at 93. At her funeral on Friday, the Rev. Edward Kacerguis described her as "this awesome, tiny, frail little woman" who inspired others with her humility and generosity.

He said she practiced a Christian motto: "It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness."

Murillo spent 41 years working for the Lombard family on Burdett Avenue on the edge of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute campus, less than a block from RPI's Christ Sun of Justice Chapel & Cultural Center. About 100 people attended her funeral service there, where Murillo attended daily Mass and regularly stopped in to pray.

"She was a woman of deep, profound faith," said Kacerguis, an RPI chaplain who saw her almost daily, and never without a warm smile.

A hymn sung at the funeral seemed to sum up her life: "Gentle woman, quiet light/Morning star, so strong and bright/Peaceful dove, teach us wisdom, teach us love."

Rosa Guaque Murillo, who never married, left her South American homeland in the 1960s to work as a nanny for the children of an RPI doctoral student. After that job ended, she came to live with the Lombards in 1969. She assisted Marfisa Lombard, the family matriarch who had six children and a full-time job teaching first grade in Troy.

"Rosa was a wonderful example of faith and humility," a Lombard daughter, Nicolene, said in a eulogy. "She taught us to be grateful for the simple things in life."

The youngest Lombard child, Teddy, was 5 when Murillo came to live and work with the family. A spirited boy, he gave Murillo a run for her money.

"Yeah, I was a terror," the man who is now in his mid-40s recalled after Murillo's funeral.

Lombard's older sister mentioned in her remembrance that when Murillo learned that Teddy, then a young man, was preparing to move out of the house she replied: "Thank God."

Murillo helped prepare dinner for nine each evening, but initially insisted that she eat alone in the kitchen after the family finished.

This didn't sit well with Marfisa Lombard, who's known as Martie. She soon coaxed Murillo out of her self-imposed exile. Another place was set at the family table from then on.

Murillo was known as a patron saint of horticultural lost causes, nursing back to health scores of sickly specimens. At one count, she tended to 132 plants in the Lombard house.

Murillo liked to keep the kids up late so they could witness an annual nighttime blooming of her beloved dama de noche, a sweet-scented tropical flower she brought from South America.

With the help of the Lombard kids, who taught her English and helped her study for her citizenship test, Murillo became a U.S. citizen more than 30 years ago.

When three generations of Lombards and family friends gathered at a local restaurant to celebrate Murillo's 80th birthday, she grew emotional after dinner.

"All my life I thought I accomplished nothing. Now, I know I accomplished something," she said.

As Murillo's health declined, the tables were turned. The 88-year-old Lombard matriarch, a tiny woman herself, became Murillo's caretaker.

"Look at all she did for us," Martie Lombard said after the funeral. "It was our good fortune to have known Rosa."

Paul Grondahl can be reached at 454-5623 or by e-mail at pgrondahl@timesunion.com.