MANY people of Brisbane archdiocese and beyond have remembered Sister of Mercy Kathleen (Kath) Mary Burke as a woman of great mercy, vision, wisdom and justice.
She died in Brisbane on July 23, aged 86 in her 59th year of religious profession, and her funeral Mass was celebrated at St Vincent’s Chapel, Nudgee, on July 30.
Many Sisters of Mercy, along with relatives and friends, priests and religious attended the funeral.
Sr Kath’s family was represented at the celebration of her life by sister-in-law Marie Burke, nephew John, nieces Susan and Julie, and nephew-in-law John Gallagher.
Marist Father John Begg and Divine Word Missionaries Father Frank Gerry were celebrants, and Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge presided.
Sister of Mercy Mary Lawson, in a tribute written for the funeral booklet, said that “as a Sister of Mercy, (Sr Kath) was a significant leader of change both in our Brisbane congregation, across Australia and internationally”.
Sr Kath was born in Atherton, North Queensland, on March 5, 1929, to Henry and Kathleen Burke, and her only sibling was a brother, Harry (deceased), “whom she loved dearly and whose family gave her much pleasure through her life”.
She taught at Nambour State High School and then at Atherton State High before entering the Sisters of Mercy Brisbane Congregation in 1954.
After profession on January 7, 1957, known as Sr Mary Joannes, Sr Kath taught at All Hallows’, where she had been a boarding student, from 1957-64.
During these years, she also lectured part-time at Catherine McAuley Teachers’ College.
“As a teacher and lecturer, Kath had a profound influence on the lives of many,” Sr Lawson wrote.
“As a post-graduate student in Rome at Regina Mundi at the close of the Second Vatican Council, and having chosen Gaudium et Spes as her dissertation area, Kath accepted both the vision and challenge to make a significant difference in the lives of many.
“On her return from studies in Rome, Kath was mistress of junior professed in the Brisbane Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, then was head of the department of Religious Education at the then McAuley Teachers’ College.
“During this time Kath was also very involved within Brisbane archdiocese.”
She was the elected congregation leader of the Brisbane congregation (1981-88) and was then elected president of the Institute of Sisters of Mercy Australia (1988-93).
“As a result of her vision and world view, she was able to influence many Church and secular authorities, for example the Archdiocesan Commission for Ecumenism, National Commission for Justice and Peace, state committee of AWD (Action for World Development), inaugural committee of the Institute of Faith Education, Mater Hospital Governing Council, National Council of Religious of Australia (national executive), Mercy Overseas Association Inc president and Mercy International Association,” Sr Lawson wrote.
“When Kath was honoured with the degree of Doctor of the University, Honoris Causa (Australian Catholic University) the citation concluded with ‘Sr Kathleen Mary Burke, RSM, BA and BEd (University of Queensland), MSSC (Regina Mundi, Rome) is a woman of extraordinary religious zeal and social commitment.
“She has furthered the cause of the Indigenous peoples, women, especially religious women, and those whom the (Second Vatican) Council described as ‘poor and who were in any way afflicted’.
“A Sister of Mercy for more than 60 years, Kath was a trusted and loyal friend and confidant to many who will continue to be inspired by her wisdom.”
Sister of Mercy Catharine Courtney, in a eulogy, said a turning point in Sr Kath’s life was the study of theology at Regina Mundi in Rome.
“Her thesis on the Vatican II document, the Church in the Modern World, was the beginning of a new spiritual journey where a response to God’s Mercy demanded also a recognition of God’s Justice,” Sr Courtney said.
“Action on behalf of justice was once again recognised as a demand of the Gospel of Jesus’ Compassion offers consolation and support to a suffering individual but God’s Love is for all people and so demands a challenge to those with the systemic power to change unjust systems that oppress whole groups of people, hence Kath’s involvement in issues around justice and peace.
“A big heart and a courageous one was called for to embrace the call for land rights for Indigenous people, for equality for women in the Church and for reforms needed in our state’s political and criminal justice system – all part of the agenda of the seventies.
“Ever the educator, on her return from Rome Kath’s appointed role was mentor for the more recently professed sisters.”
Sr Courtney said that, in collaboration with priests like Fr Bill O’Shea, Sr Kath inspired the initiation of courses in theology for lay people in the archdiocese.
“Similarly local orders of nuns remember the Verbum Dei course at Banyo,” Sr Courtney said.
“This was an opportunity for sisters of all orders who had worked for years in their ministries to be renewed in heart and mind.
“Indeed (Sr Kath’s) efforts were the beginning locally of the study of theology no longer being the monopoly of the clergy and being ecumenical in approach.”
Sr Courtney said her friend “was never pretentious even though she filled important roles”.
“She responded to whatever was asked of her by the congregation,” she said.
“In retirement when she could choose her ministry she took on hidden tasks such as driving cancer patients to the radium clinic and volunteering at Emmaus (Mercy Aged Care Services).”
Sr Courtney said retirement also offered Sr Kath “the opportunity to indulge her appreciation of the finer things of life – music, art and literature”.
“So many people have made the journey with Kath and found her to be a woman of great integrity who has shared her gifts unstintingly and selflessly,” she said.
“She was always forward looking – never petty or small-minded.
“However it was a journey.
“As for all of us, at times her shadow side took over and with public exposure criticism deserved and undeserved was ‘part of the deal’.
“The words from St Luke chapter two about Jesus growing in age and grace and wisdom have been echoing in my mind to describe Kath’s journey through life.
“In the years of dementia she was ever gracious, noted for a quiet attentiveness to whoever she passed in the corridor and a grateful thank-you for help or for a visit to her room.
“What can we learn from Kath’s time with us?
“Perhaps to make as our own her belief and that of St Paul’s read here today namely that the power of God’s Spirit working in us brings about more than we can ask or imagine.”