“Whatsoever you do to the least of my people that you do unto me.” - (Matthew 25:40)
Sister Claudia Burke , SFP
October 21, 1926 - May 10, 2010
Sr. Claudia Burke went peacefully into the arms of her loving God in the early morning hours of May 10, 2010, following a brief illness. It had been barely a month since she joined with Sisters and Associates in the US Area for the annual Assembly in the newly renovated Centennial Barn. Although she appeared fatigued, Sr. Claudia was pleased to receive greetings from all those who stopped to chat with her. It was just a few weeks later that Sister was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis and admitted to the intensive care unit at Mercy Hospital, Mount Airy, where she spent her last days. Sr. Claudia was 83 years old and a member of the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor for 65 years.
Helen Elizabeth Buddendick and George Burke lived in Highland Park, Michigan. The first people to inhabit the area were farmers. Later, a Ford Plant was constructed. It was there that Mary Virginia was born on October 21, 1926. She and her brother Charles spent their early life in the small town surrounded by the city of Detroit. With the onset of the 1929 Depression, many families were affected financially and George Burke struggled to provide for his small family.
On January 6, 1944, Mary Virginia left her family home to join the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her decision to choose a community that worked directly with the poor was, undoubtedly, motivated by her personal experience of poverty during her formative years. When Mary Virginia was invested with the habit of the Congregation, she was given the name Sister Claudia. Sister professed First Vows on September 8, 1946, and made her Perpetual Profession on September 8, 1951.
During her time in the novitiate and the year following her First Profession, Sr. Claudia completed her high school studies and was awarded a diploma from Our Lady of the Angels High School in Cincinnati in 1947. In 1948, Sr. Claudia was assigned to part-time ministry at Catholic Charities in Cincinnati and studied sociology at Our Lady of Cincinnati College earning a BA Degree. In 1953, Sr. Claudia was missioned to St. Michael Convent in Steubenville, Ohio, where she served the poor with enthusiasm. One of her memorable assignments in Steubenville was to arrange foster care and supervision for ten Hungarian teenage refugees.
Sr. Claudia was first assigned to Flint Michigan in 1960 to serve on the staff of Catholic Charities. Two years later, Sister left Flint to study at St. Louis University where she was awarded a Masters Degree in Social Work in 1964. Sister returned to Flint after completing her studies and continued to minister as a social worker in the office of Catholic Charities.
In 1968, Sr. Claudia was missioned to St. John Convent in Cincinnati where she served the poor at the DePorres Center for one year. In 1969, Sr. Claudia returned to Flint for the third time. In 1971, Sister participated in a course offered by Odyssey House to become familiar with the treatment and rehabilitation of people experiencing substance abuse. She also became a volunteer with the Red Cross and served on two disaster teams.
Ministry in Flint became Sister’s life, and Flint was her home and family for a total of 45 years. No one who knew Sr. Claudia could question her love and devotion for the people of Flint. Sister was known for her passion for justice. Of particular concern was equal housing for all. She even stood before a judge to fight against the practice of discrimination. Her arguments were so persuasive that the judge suggested that she should have been a lawyer. When Flint experienced an economic down turn, Sr. Claudia created the North End Soup Kitchen and organized the Displaced Workers Center to help those who lost jobs find employment or access social service agencies.
Sr. Claudia enjoyed quite a reputation throughout the City of Flint. Some compared her to Mother Teresa. She bore the title “Queen of Bingo” with pride, as a tribute to her dedication to fundraising through that popular game. When the State of Michigan considered changing the regulations governing the game, Sr. Claudia was right there to oppose any change that might affect agencies serving the poor from using Bingo as a source for funding.
Sister was well known throughout the business community in Flint. Whether she approached the business owners with new ideas, asked for financial assistance or “called them on the carpet” for an unfair practice, they knew they were on the losing team and would acquiesce to her wishes. Many described Sr. Claudia as a tenacious woman, a “tough cookie,” especially when it involved her service to the poor. Someone said of her that “she eats, breathes and sleeps for the poor.” Although she might not like the title, Sr. Claudia was a feminist in the most positive sense.
Sr. Claudia was not a 24 hour a day worker. In her “free time,” Sister enjoyed watching hockey games, a glass or can of Verner’s Ginger Ale and the company of her part German shepherd dog named Sweet Boy.
On December 10, 2008, Congressman Dale E. Kildee honored Sr. Claudia by reading a tribute of her lifetime of accomplishments and service for the people of Flint into the Congressional Record. As Sister prepared to leave her beloved city and begin a new era in her life by retiring to Mercy Franciscan Terrace in Cincinnati, the staff at Riverbend Rehab and Nursing Home planned a gala party in her honor. So many people arrived to say thank you that the staff was overwhelmed with surprise.
Sr. Claudia, as the members of your Congregation bid you farewell, knowing that you are now with your God, experiencing the wealth of eternal life, we thank you for your witness of service to the poor. We may have failed to tell you, when you walked with us in this life, but we are inspired by your selfless commitment to the poor. We are proud that your friend Steve Landall said of you: “How can you not love a woman whose heart is at the heart of the Gospel? Her legacy will go on forever.”
- Sister Arleen Bourquin, SFP
May 12, 2010