“Sister Immaculata had the heart of a true daughter of Elizabeth Seton, the soul of a missionary, the skill of a healer, the compassion of one who walked the way of charity…”
Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton once characterized herself as a “citizen of the world.” What an apt description of Sister Immaculata Burke.
Brigid Burke was born February 18, 1920 in Mullingar, Ireland, one of three daughters and three sons of James and Brigid Troy Burke. As a young woman she went to England to receive nurse’s training, and went abroad to Ceylon, (now Sri Lanka) and then to the Bahamas, where she worked at the Princess Margaret Hospital in Nassau. There she met the New York Sisters of Charity who impressed her as women on fire with a mission to be with all those in need, especially the poor.
On September 8, 1953, she entered the community in New York, and received the name Marie Immaculata. Her first and only mission in New York was St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan. Soon her missionary heart heard, and responded, to the call to serve others in Novillero, Sololá, Guatemala, where most of the people were Mayan, and all of them were poor.
Sister Immaculata was responsible for opening several clinics focused on mother and infant health initiatives. She encouraged young Guatemalan doctors to give of their time and skill to the work of the clinics. One, Dr. Jose Miguel Vasquez, became a coworker and friend for many years. Volunteer doctors from abroad also came, donating weeks at a time to work in her clinics. Recently, student nurses and alums from the College of Mount Saint Vincent have also gone to Sololá on a regular basis to assist—and learn.
In her forty-three years of service to the people of Guatemala, Sister Immaculata witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of a brutal civil war and the destruction of an earthquake in 1976. During that experience, she worked tirelessly for five days and nights with little food or sleep, trying with other volunteers to save as many lives as possible. Sister Immaculata was supported largely by the mission outreach program of the diocese of Spokane, Washington. In 1992 Pope John Paul II awarded her the papal medal “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” for her exemplary service.
When Sisters went to visit, Sister Immaculata often gave them a tiny seed to keep as a reminder of the vast amount of work that still needed to be done in Guatemala. From the seeds of her life and witness have come fruitful harvests that will be remembered forever by the people she claimed as her own.
¡Qué descance en la paz de nuestro Salvador JesuCristo!
DATE OF DEATH
March 8, 2014
Novillero, Sololá, Guatemala
- St. Vincent’s Hospital, Manhattan
1956–70, Nurse, Administrative Supervisor
- Spokane Mission, Guatemala
1971–2014, Diocese of Solala Chimaltenango, Health Promotion, Education, Promotion of Women