Missionary, educator contributed to building independent Ghana
Father Vincent Burke, 1933-2017
Father Vincent Burke SVD, 83, recipient of Ghana’s Officer of the Order of Volta Award, passed away at Techny, Ill., on Sept. 21.
“Father Burke spent more than half of his life—almost 50 years—in Ghana on the West Coast of Africa,” said Father Edward Tetteh SVD, pastor of Blessed Sacrament-Our Lady of Divine Shepherd in Trenton, N.J. “During his many years in Ghana, since he worked mostly in educational institutions, he produced excellent professionals: teachers, priests, ministers, doctors, engineers, lawyers, pharmacists, journalists and many others who work in different parts of the world.”
Father Burke, whose students included Father Tetteh and Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle of Accra, arrived in Ghana, West Africa, in 1963, only four years after the country gained independence from Great Britain.
Born in Cambridge, Mass., in 1933, Vincent Burke was the third of Walter and Eleanor (nee McGoff) Burke’s four sons. His immigrant Irish-born parents instilled faith and a firm work ethic in their sons.
Young Vincent began his studies with the Society of the Divine Word at Divine Word Seminary at Miramar in Massachusetts in 1947. He professed vows in 1953 in Conesus, N.Y., and was ordained to the priesthood in 1961 at Techny, Ill.
Following ordination, he was sent to Washington, D.C., and the Catholic University of America, where he earned a master’s degree in English literature. Upon completing his degree, Father Burke received his first assignment abroad: Ghana, the first Black sub-Saharan country in Africa to gain independence from a colonial power.
When he arrived in Nkwatia-Kwahu to teach English at St. Peter’s Secondary School, the town had yet to benefit from electricity and running water. The school, which was established the year of independence in 1957, was a work in progress. Over time and with the dedication of teachers like Father Burke, the school rose to prominence. In fact in 1966, Father Burke led students to a victory in a national educational contest called the Ghana TV Cup.
After six years at St. Peter’s, Father Burke was named chaplain and professor of English literature at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Osu, Ghana. He had a special devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In addition to teaching, he served as national spiritual director of the Ghana Sacred Heart Enthronement Centre and spiritual director of the Accra Diocesan Sacred Heart Centre.
In 1981, Father Burke was promoted to headmaster and rector of Pope John XXIII Secondary School and Minor Seminary in Koforidua.
After more than 20 years at Pope John XXIII School, he returned to the United States and served as parochial vicar at Blessed Sacrament-Our Lady of the Divine Shepherd in Trenton, N.J., where he lived with Father Tetteh.
“He knew me as a boy [in Ghana] who washed his car and went with him when he said Mass at mission stations, yet [as an adult] he treated me as an equal,” Father Tetteh said.
Father Tetteh also took note of Father Burke’s humility and devotion to his students.
“He was very simple in dress and in the use of modern technology,” Father Tetteh said. “I well remember when he came to live with me in Trenton. I wanted to buy a smartphone for him, but when he got to know the price of the cell phone, he humbly declined. He told me that that amount of money could pay for school fees for five students in secondary school in Ghana.”
Ghana continued to call. In 2006, Father Burke was appointed lecturer at the newly founded Catholic University College of Ghana in Sunyani. For three years, he taught English and biblical ethics. After completing that assignment, Father Burke’s superiors asked him to teach English as a second language (ESL) to Divine Word missionaries who did not know the language. Father Burke became director of the Divine Word Language and Cultural Centre in Ghana.
In 2011 at age 77, he retired from teaching and returned to the United States. While living at the Divine Word Residence in Bordentown, N.J., he often visited parishes and schools to talk about missionary work. He moved to Techny in 2016. Later that year, in recognition of his service to the Ghanaian people, President John Dramani Mahama bestowed the honor of Officer of the Order of Volta upon him.
Father Burke was preceded in death by his parents and his brother John. He is survived by two brothers, Walter and Kevin Burke.
His viewing and wake service took place on Sept. 26 at the chapel in the Divine Word Residence at Techny. His funeral Mass was Sept. 27, followed by burial at St. Mary Cemetery at Techny. A special memorial Mass was celebrated at the Holy Spirit Cathedral in Accra, Ghana, on Oct. 9.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations in the name of Father Burke can be made for the care of elderly and infirm missionaries and sent to The Rector, Divine Word Residence, 1901 Waukegan Road, P.O. Box 6000, Techny, IL 60082-6000.
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