Spirited advocate for women
KATHLEEN (KATH) MARY BURKE, RSM Sister of Mercy, educator Born: March 5, 1929, Atherton Died: July 23, 2015, Brisbane
SINCE the Sisters of Mercy arrived in Queensland in 1861 (only 30 years after the Order’s founding in Dublin by Catherine McAuley), they have educated and influenced countless young Queenslanders over seven generations. The Order has produced many remarkable nuns, among them Kath Burke (Sister Mary Joannes).
Having entered religious life in 1954, Kath witnessed astonishing changes, not just those wrought by Vatican II but those in the wider world that embraced social justice, feminism, secularism and civil rights.
As a modernist, activist and educator, Kath understood, appreciated and adapted to these forces, while retaining her fundamental vocation as a Catholic nun.
As a state and national leader for her Order and as a teacher, lecturer and leader over six decades, she would inspire thousands of young women.
Kathleen Mary Burke was the only daughter of Harry and Kathleen Burke. She and her brother, Harry, grew up in a close and loving Catholic family. Kath was educated by the Sisters of Mercy at St Joseph’s, Atherton and later as a boarder at All Hallows’, the Order’s mother school in Brisbane.
Here she was influenced by two legendary nuns, Sister Mary Alpheus Dwyer and Sister Mary Claver McDermott, both highly educated in the liberal arts.
Having earned degrees in arts and education from the University of Queensland, Kath taught at Nambour State High School, St Mary’s in Herberton and St Aidan’s, Corinda and then at home, at Atherton State High, before entering the Sisters of Mercy Brisbane Congregation.
She was professed on January 7, 1957 and took the name Sister Mary Joannes, a Latin rendering of Jesus’s favourite, St John the Evangelist.
In 1957, the Sisters of Mercy looked and lived in a way that would have been familiar to their pre-Victorian founder. They wore medieval garb, lived a religious life bounded by The Rule and occupied the lowest rung of the hierarchy.
Yet, as they saw it, this was part of the deal – a deal with God; tempered by the support of companions with the same calling to follow the Gospel.
Her first role was as a teacher of English, French and religion at All Hallows’ from 1957 to 1965 while she also lectured part-time at Catherine McAuley Teachers’ College.
In 1965, Sr Mary Joannes went to Rome to study at Regina Mundi, the pontifical institute dedicated to teaching theology to nuns and consecrated lay women. Pontifical universities had, until then, only been open to men.
Her five years there was a time of tremendous optimism and energy in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and her dissertation, Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), reflected this historic mood.
She brought that spirit back to Queensland and it never left her. She returned displaying a strand of hair and ankles as veils retracted and habits rose to the calf. The image of a modern Sister of Mercy was emerging, ever so slowly, from those outmoded forms of dress.
Then in 1974, Sr Mary Joannes was able to reclaim her own name, Kath. She was Mistress of the Junior Professed in the Brisbane Congregation and head of religious education at McAuley College.
She also became a founding member of Concerned Chris- tians, publicly opposed to the discriminatory policies of the government of the day.
Proudly wearing her habit, she took part in street marches, rallies, Roma St forums and demonstrations to advocate for land rights and better conditions for indigenous peoples.
Kath was also a key member of the inaugural National Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace during the 1970s and early 1980s.
She was a spirited advocate for women and was part of a team that developed a diploma in theology for religious women in Queensland when the Church hierarchy had none in place.
Kath also found time to join and contribute to the work of many archdiocesan and other committees such as the Institute of Faith Education and the Archdiocesan Religious Education Commission.
She was an ecumenicist, sharing again the vision of Vatican II.
For five years, she was a member of the Archdiocesan Commission for Ecumenism, engaging with other faiths. In 2006, she was part of a Christian-Muslim dialogue.
She also served on the governing council of the Mater Hospital for eight years.
Yet, her community, the Mercy Order, remained key.
She was a founding member of Mercy International Association and a member of the national executive of the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes.
For seven years from 1981 she served as congregational leader of Brisbane’s 500 Sisters of Mercy, their schools, hospitals and welfare institutions.
She then assumed leadership of the national body, as president of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy, Australia, from 1988 to 1993, when she was praised for her broad vision as a communicator and unifier.
During this time, she was a member of the International Steering Committee at Baggot St that established the Mercy International Centre and brought unity to the worldwide Order. It was Baggot St, Dublin, where Catherine McAuley and her companions founded the Order.
Kath took on whatever the congregation asked of her. She always looked forward.
Her duties would inevitably attract criticism and rebuke. Her response was to take it simply as “part of the deal”.
Despite her eminence, she had no pretensions. In fact, members of her community appreciated a woman with a big heart, a playfulness, a gift for music and storytelling.
Even in retirement, apart from the chance to enjoy music, art and books, she continued to give – discreetly driving cancer patients to the radium clinic (somehow they survived the driving) and volunteering at the Order’s nursing home.
In May 2006, in recognition of her life’s work, the Australian Catholic University awarded Kath its highest honour, Doctor of the University.
Her citation described her as “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 council described as ‘poor’ and who were in any way afflicted.”
Her beloved brother, Harry, died in 2014, as have many of her Mercy contemporaries.
She is survived by her nephew John Burke and three nieces, Susan, Julie and Elissa and their families, and the sisters from her first Brisbane community and her last at Emmaus, Nudgee.