Have Suitcase, Will Travel

by Sr. Mary O’Brien, C.P.

Sister Kathleen Mary Burke, CP is a youthful, bubbly 94-year-old heart attack survivor. The heart attack occurred in Mandeville, Jamaica, where she had lived and loved for twenty-one years. During her convalescence with us at St. Gabriel House, Farmington, Connecticut, she regaled us with stories, reminiscences, and accounts of rehab workouts at the gym where she practiced lifting weights, walking the treadmill, and meeting new people. For Kathleen is, above all, a maker and keeper of friends.

Kathleen’s journey of life began nearly a century ago in Dublin, Ireland, where she was born the second youngest in a many-talented family. At 17 she entered the novitiate of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion at Kilcullen in County Kildare. That should have guaranteed a stay of two and a half years in one spot. However, it did not! Kathleen (known in novitiate as Sister Bertrand) volunteered to join the two novices previously sent by the English novitiate to make a new beginning across the Atlantic in Bristol, Rhode Island. When asked in a 1994 interview with Sister Mary Ann Strain about her motive for volunteering for such a new and distant mission, Kathleen replied, “If I was to be a Sister of the Cross and Passion, I wanted to go all the way.”

Sister Kathleen made her profession of first vows there in Bristol at Mount St. Joseph in 1934. Over the next several decades in Rhode Island and in Connecticut, she served as principal, teacher, local Superior, college registrar, speech instructor, music teacher, and Director of Religious Education.

As one listens to Kathleen’s reminiscences, it is difficult to believe that she has ever forgotten a student who passed through her hands. It might be noted that she never seems to have forgotten their parents either or anyone who came to the office on an errand or anyone she just happened to meet in the street. The daily mail and ringing of the phone bear witness to that!

On many afternoons when Kathleen and I shared ministry in Rhode Island, she would speak of her hopes and dreams as we strolled home from the college. One phrase that often recurred was “have suitcase, will travel.” In fact, Kathleen was already much traveled. Not only had she made her initial voyage from Ireland to Rhode Island, but also visits to her far-flung family had taken her to such places as Rome, Geneva, Kuwait, Bahrain and Malta. However, another trip lay in her future.

Culminating experience

I have often wondered whether that streak of Irish wanderlust was a secondary motive in prompting her ready response to the call to the new Jamaica mission undertaken by our Province in 1985. The primary motive was, of course, the same one she had articulated in 1932: “As a Sister of the Cross and Passion, I want to go all the way.” In any case, Kathleen promptly fell in love with the island, its people, the priests, brothers and students of the Passionist Community there, and the climate. Listening to Kathleen today, there can be no doubt that Jamaica has been the culminating experience of her Passionist life.

Srs Una and Kathleen and Br Michael
Sr. Una O’Connor, C.P., Br. Michael Stomber, C.P. and Sr. Kathleen Burke, C.P.

St. Paul of the Cross parish in Mandeville was the focus of her life. For more than twenty years, she was in charge of religious education. She visited people in their homes and in nursing homes, and kept in touch by phone. A highlight of my own three trips to Jamaica is the memory of a visit to the Infirmary, a place of refuge for the poorest and often most disabled of the poor, in company with Kathleen and Brother Michael Stomber, CP. Despite much suffering, there was joy on many of the faces of the people gathered around to sing and pray. No account of Kathleen’s life in Jamaica should omit the Thursday morning rosary group which was a highlight of each week.

Kathleen rejoiced at every positive development in the Church in Jamaica. She eagerly participated in the celebration of every milestone in the life of the young Diocese of Mandeville. Her heart attack in 2006 occurred during an ordination ceremony. On the personal level too, Kathleen shared, and shares, in the joys and sorrows of many. Over the past several months, she grieves over the murder of two good friends from the Mandeville parish.

I have quoted Kathleen’s motto, “have suitcase, will travel.” The phrase might as fittingly have begun “have typewriter.” She served as province secretary from the establishment of the North American Province in 1950 until her departure to Jamaica in 1985. An aging and ailing typewriter continued to serve her well during the Jamaican years. She now mourns its absence and the lack of a suitable replacement in this world of computers.

In the course of a long life Kathleen has developed a varied array of abilities and interests. Probably the most obvious to anyone who meets her for the first time is an extraordinary memory for jokes and anecdotes. Many of her sentences begin, “Did you hear” or “Do you remember.” Kathleen is a reader constantly on the lookout to renew acquaintance with old favorites, especially poems, or to find new inspiration in works of spirituality, biography or fiction. She plays the flute, and knits teddy bears.

From what I have written so far, it probably is easy to infer that Kathleen is a woman of prayer. However, it would not be fitting to close without making the point explicit. Sharing even a day with her makes one conscious of her devotion to the Mass, her fidelity to her schedule of prayer, and her sense of reverence. Her spirituality is evident both in her generous outlook to all people and in her desire to place her own life in the hands of her loving God. Her example inspires us to do the same.

Sr. Mary O’Brien, C.P. assists in retreat ministry at Our Lady of Calvary Retreat House, Farmington Connecticut.

in this issue
The Passionists

Paul Zilonka, C.P.
Mary Ann Strain, C.P.
Kevin Dance, C.P.
Suzanne Thomas
James Fitzgerald
Joseph Jones, C.P.,
Eastern Province
Cover by
Mary Ann Strain, C.P.

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