Witness Post: Sr. Mary Burke, SNJM
As Sr. Mary Burke extolled, “God’s generous abundance continues to bless me in every season of my life!” She lived all of those seasons with energy, enthusiasm, and the search for better ways to teach. She had a particular passion for the education of young women and for discerning the best ways for every student to navigate in the world. And yes, she had her blessings of abundance that she shared perpetually with those around her.
On the occasion of her half century mark with the Sisters, Mary reminisced on her life and her family. The daughter of James and Marie Burke, Mary was one of five children born in a ten year span. Her siblings, Mike, Tim, Patty and Jane, were always close with her. She said that Dad Burke was a laundryman and Mom worked incredibly hard at home caring for the five children.
Mary’s schooling began at St. Stephen’s Elementary, and then at St. Mary’s Academy in Portland. Shortly after graduating she took her vows to become a Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus & Mary. She chose the name Sister James Marie, honoring her parents. “When I entered the convent in July, 1960, I started my training as an elementary school teacher at Marylhurst College in Lake Oswego. This training marked the beginning of a lifetime of ministry in the Catholic schools.”
For eleven years she taught boys and girls in the sixth, seventh and eighth grade. Unlike some teachers who would rather quit than teach middle schoolers, Mary noted that her students were so insightful and happy. She loved those years in her teaching career! But she seemed bound for administration.
One of the old education saws is, “If you can’t do, teach, and if you can’t teach, administrate.” In Mary Burke’s case, she was the exception. She took her need for further education as an administrator seriously. After serving as the principal at Sacred Heart Mid High and Sacred Heart Academy, in Salem, she sought additional growth. She said, “As much as I liked administration (most of the time), I recognized that I needed to know more about boards, marketing and revenue development.” She took her own education to a new level, seeking out the best practices for boards and schools of all sizes and locations. She was on a quest that led to a year of internships across the country: Hartford, CT, Chicago, IL, Omaha, NE, and Arlington, VA. Not resting on her laurels, Mary took this new-found information and returned to Portland. She served the community as principal at her alma mater, St. Mary’s Academy, from 1983 – 1988.
Mary seemed to always be asking the bold questions with her life. As if to say, “Go big or go home,” Mary Burke prayed a lot and went BIG. She was recruited in 1988 to a job in Washington, DC. She moved east to work at the National Catholic Educational Association. There she served as the resource person for Catholic identity and financial advancement. Under her stewardship were over 1,200 Catholic high schools from across the country. She helped these schools to fully appreciate their Catholic roots in a changing world and taught them how to raise money to support their missions. “I learned from everyone I met during those six years. I met a lot of people with important stories. Talk about abundance!”
Her next junket took her to Toledo, Ohio, where Mary conducted a series of endowment fundraising campaigns for Toledo’s diocesan elementary schools. She was a Buckeye for four years, before feeling that she really was blessed with God’s grace. Mary got a break for herself for nearly a year. Sounding like John Steinbeck in Travels with Charlie, she said, “1999 marked THE year of abundance for me – a sabbatical with the use of the SNJM community’s RV. I traveled 16,000 miles, spending eight incredible months in national parks. Truly, the most wonderful year of my life, because the natural beauty and the outdoor activities I love filled every day.”
South Rim of the Grand Canyon , AZ
Since the year 2000, Mary Burke has served as an independent consultant for strategic planning and capital campaigns across the country. “I have guided individual Catholic schools and school systems.” With her heart full of gratitude and zeal, she continued the strategic thinking and board formation for the rest of her life.
Anyone who came into an SMA board room expecting a set of dottering nuns, were soon disavowed of that notion. Those of us who served with Sister Mary were struck by the keenness of her line of questions. She never dodged the financial matters. She always asked the tough ones – the deeply probing questions we wished we had asked, because they were important. In the board room she excelled at leading strategic planning sessions, fundraising discussions, expansive thinking and consensus building. For her commitment to service, all of those who know her are grateful. She spoke from a heart of understanding and place of wisdom. It is we who were most blessed in her company.
All who knew Mary Burke are deeply saddened by the news of her death and shocked. Just days before her accident, she was sharing her thoughts on education and the upcoming capital campaign at St. Mary’s Academy. She engaged with former SMA board members after Eucharist at her church, The Madeleine, an SNJM constellation since 1911.
Mary Burke was a clear thinker, a startling reflector, a courageous planner and a dear friend. What a sense of curiosity and interest she had for God, her religious order, education and for St. Mary’s Academy!
We are weeping for our loss.