Fr Don Burke SMA – Funeral Homily

Homily at the Funeral Service for the late Fr Daniel (Don) Burke SMA
Good Friday, 2 April 2021 – St Joseph’s SMA Church, Wilton, Cork

Fr Don Burke SMA died peacefully in St Theresa’s Nursing Unit at the SMA House, Blackrock Road, Cork, on the evening of Spy Wednesday, 31 March 2021. He celebrated his 88th birthday on 4 March last. Following reposing in the Community Chapel, his remains were brought to St Joseph’s SMA Church, Wilton, on Good Friday morning for a Funeral Service followed by burial in the adjoining SMA cemetery. As it is not permitted to celebrate Mass on Good Friday, a Service of the Word was led by the SMA Provincial Superior, Fr Malachy Flanagan. Miss Niamh Roe provided music for the Service.

The following is an edited version of the homily delivered by Fr Anthony Kelly, SMA Provincial Councillor.

Isaiah 61:1-3          Romans 6:3-4, 8-9          Mark 15:33-39

Don Burke was in the 60th year of his Priesthood in the Society of African Missions (SMA) when he died last Wednesday evening.

His life as a missionary priest can be divided into 4 parts: 22 years in Nigeria; 9 years in Poland; 18 years in Zambia and 9 years in retirement in Cork. His retirement included a short period in our SMA Parish Walthamstow in London. Don and I lived and worked together in Zambia so I knew him well from that period of his life.

I had many a good argument with Don, and from what I hear I was not the only one. But we always got over them quickly.

I often wondered why he had such rows or arguments. I think the main reason was because Don was so passionate about things. When he got something into his head he kept at it until he made it work out. A very important thing about those rows was that they didn’t last long. Don didn’t keep grudges. Usually we had our row in the morning and by lunchtime it was all over as if nothing had happened.

Don Burke who was born in Waterford in 1933. After his Leaving Cert he has spent almost four years working with the ESB in his native Waterford. Answering the Call to priesthood, following in the steps of his brother Fr Maurice (Mossie), Don entered the SMA Novitiate at Cloughballymore, Co Galway in September 1955, at the age of 22.

Having completed his Philosophy and Theology studies in the SMA major seminary at Dromantine, Newry, he was ordained on 10 December 1961.

Nigeria: Dons’ first mission appointment was to Lagos in 1962 where he served for more than 22 years. He served initially in Mushin and Shomolu. Both Mushin and Shomolu were very poor areas, and Don was quickly exposed to the extreme poverty of the people and the social problems. The major problem was the large numbers of unemployed youths who had come from rural areas without any skills looking for non-existent jobs. In response to this situation, Don established what became known as Boys Town to help train these youth in various skills. Carpentry, plumbing, farming and enable them to integrate back into their communities with a trade. Don is best known in Lagos for this pioneering work with Boys Town, Ipaja.

Don had a great command of the Yoruba language and his nickname among the youth was Fr ‘Olufemi’ Burke. Olufemi means ‘God Loves me’.

Today’s first Reading from Isaiah give us a glimpse of the motivation behind Dons’ life as a missionary priest as he tried to serve the poor. We know that it was this same passage that Jesus quoted from when he gave us his manifesto at the beginning of his public ministry

‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because Yahweh has anointed me to bring good news to the poor’.

When we reflect on the missionary life of Don Burke we see that he truly lived out that reading. His main focus was to bring Good news to the Poor and freedom through skills and education. This he did also in Zambia.

Poland: In spite of all the good work Don was doing in Lagos for the poor, he was approached by the SMA Superior General in Rome – in 1984 – to be part of an international team to begin the task for re-establishing the SMA in Poland. Don went about learning a new language and had to adapt to living under the constraints of the communist regime. Again, Don had great energy and zeal for this important work and set about recruiting students for missionary priesthood with the SMA. He did not take any short cuts or easy route for this demanding work. He is known for his involvement in the pilgrimage walks to the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa a journey which could take up to three weeks to complete where he mingled with thousands of catholic youth as they gave expression to their faith. Don also acquired a nickname in Polish – Kazik – which referred to St Casimir, on whose feast day (4 March), Don was born.

The SMA Polish Province bears testament to his dedication and witness. Today there are Polish SMA priests serving as missionaries in Central Africa. Egypt, Morocco Tanzania, Togo and other African countries. The legacy of Fr Don Burke lives on and expanded to those countries who will have a priest today – Good Friday 2021 – to celebrate the Holy Week and Easter Ceremonies. 

Zambia: It was only when I went to Zambia that I got to know Don. For 18 years. he served the people faithfully in the diocese of Ndola. For the most part he spent his time serving the poor in a place called Chipolokusu, a very deprived area on the outskirts of Ndola where people had no education opportunity nor heath care facilities. He built a school without any walls but had an unusual design that the roof came to within a few feet of the ground. He also served as Vocations Director, chaplain to the hospital and to several educational establishments: Chiwala Boy’s secondary school, Ndola Technical college, and the Nurses Training College. Gradually, Don handed responsibility for these chaplaincies to me, along with a large amount of printed material on being a Christian. He had written pamphlets and booklets on such diverse topics as Living our Baptismal calling, Purgatory, The Sacraments, Pornography, Women in Church, Dreams, just to mention a few of the 100 plus texts he authored. Don’s course in Secretarial studies, while with the ESB, stood him in good stead in Africa as he produced a lot of very useful pamphlets explaining the Faith.

Don lived a very balanced life. He used visit different religious houses one each night of the week, including the Sacred Heart Sisters, the Missionaries of Africa (popularly known as the ‘White Fathers’, not forgetting the Bishop’s House. He swam regularly and played tennis. Nothing gave him more pleasure that beating the members of the Friends of Africa (FOA) who lived with him at Tennis, mindful of the fact that Don was in his 60’s and the FOA volunteers were in their 20’s. It amazed them that he was so fit for his age. He also entertained us with his jokes at various parties and no half measures. Don always brought his sound system so that we could hear every word! Every morning, at 6am, Don was doing his daily exercises on the veranda. I always admired his enthusiasm and his passion for his work. Each weekday morning, he left the house at 8.45 to travel to the school in Chipolokusu and be back at 12.30 for a time to relax before lunch and then, after Siesta, back to lock up the school and continue for his game of tennis. That balanced life was what contributed to his long and healthy life, as well as the Cinnamon and spices he added to his porridge! He had reached 88 years before he was confined to bed, less than two weeks before he died.

Retirement: After a short period in the SMA parish in Walthamstow, London, Don moved into a very active retirement, getting involved in many programmes happening in SMA Wilton community and in the Parish Centre. He also took part in the outings organized by the Local Senior Citizens group which he very much enjoyed. In January this year, due to failing health, he transferred to the St Theresa’s Nursing Unit in SMA Blackrock Road where he received nursing care from our very dedicated and loyal staff.

Todays 2nd reading shows us that all of us are united to Christ in and through our Baptism. As we celebrate today – God Friday – Christ’s victory over death we are celebrating the life and priesthood of Don Burke.  Directly he influenced so many people in his life as a missionary and led them to Christ, and that legacy is living on today in those parishes where Don served and where the Polish priests he recruited are serving. For them and for all of us we have a new and deeper relationship with Christ as we share in his Death and Resurrection.

It is fitting that today Good Friday we have the Gospel reading which describes the last moments of Jesus’ life. The cross on which Jesus died had two beams one vertical pointing to the heavens and one horizontal reminding us that Jesus reconciles all people with God and with each other through his cross and Resurrection. Jesus gave up his life on the Cross because of his great Love for you and me. Don Burke is now enjoying that new life brought about by the Death and Resurrection of Jesus while you and I can look forward to it.

Whenever Don came with a problem he had them written out in a list. I share with you a quotation from our Founder, Venerable (Bishop) de Marion Brésillac, in a retreat to his priests in Coimbatore Vicariate, India: “Let us sit with Jesus… he will explain everything to us… It is a time to give an account of our behaviour and preaching. He will listen to the story of our success and failures, he will overlook our faults and pardon them and love us with his Compassion”. Today, Don Burke is sitting before the face of Jesus.

We can be sure that today, as he sits with Jesus, Don will also have a list. My image of Don now is that he is sitting there before the Lord with a long list and I am confident that he is interceding for you and me as I am sure we are on his list, together with his family members and all the people he served as a missionary priest with the SMA. He is interceding for us. May his gentle soul rest in Peace.

Fr Anthony Kelly SMA, Provincial Councillor, 2 April 2021