Father Burke still going strong at 83



GARDEN CITY — Father Henry Burke, who formally retired from active ministry six years ago, still works hard and does what he loves, whether that be filling in for priests in the Pee Dee Deanery or playing clarinet for the North Myrtle Beach Community Band.

The pastor who once played his clarinet during Mass at St. James Church in Conway and now celebrates liturgies in Summerton and Santee also performs with the Stardusters big band group at the Blue Crab Festival in Little River and the St. Patrick’s Day parade in North Myrtle Beach.

Born in 1918 in Red Bank, N.J., the home of Count Basie, the priest, who listens to classical as well as popular music, was educated in a religious environment. “I went to a Catholic school from year one.”

From the first day, the young Henry declared, “One day I’ll be Father Burke.”

Things went along well and Father Burke eventually got into the music business, playing the flute, baritone sax, and alto sax for the Major Bowers Amateur Unit in New York on the radio. “It was a good sideline,” he said, adding that Frank Sinatra even appeared on the show.

Then, in his graduation year of high school, Father Burke’s mother, Mary, died. “That made me think a great deal,” he said, alluding to how the event impacted his decision to explore the priesthood.

The cleric recalled that his sister Agnes later took him out for a car ride where she said, “Look, I’ll send you to college, but you’ve got to be a priest.”

Father Burke subsequently enrolled at St. Charles College in Catonsville, Md., before entering Immaculate Conception Seminary in Darlington, N.J. It was there he met Father Howard Bishop, a pastor from the Archdiocese of Baltimore who founded the Glenmary Home Missioners in 1935 to minister to rural America.

“Father Bishop came around and talked to us, and I got very interested in his organization, so I joined his society,” said Father Burke.

He was ordained to the priesthood on March 17, 1945, in Trenton, N.J., by Bishop William A. Griffin. As a Glenmary Home Missioner, he spent two years in Statesboro, Ga., and another two years in Ohio before being assigned as pastor at St. Peter Church in Cheraw in 1949.

The priest began to raise money to fix the church up. He soon got permission from Father Bishop to become a diocesan priest in South Carolina — that was 1950.

Over the next five decades, he served as a pastor of St. Ann in Kingstree, Our Lady Star of the Sea in North Myrtle Beach, Our Lady of Lourdes in Greenwood, St. Peter in Beaufort, Our Lady of the Hills in Columbia, St. Peter in Columbia, St. Mark in Newberry, St. Andrew in Myrtle Beach, St. Anthony in Ridgeland, St. Mary in Hampton, both St. Mary and St. Cyprian in Georgetown, and administrator of St. James in Conway.

Father Burke is now 83 and has been officially retired since 1995, yet he shows no sign of slowing down.

“I fill in at Lake City,” he said. “They have a good group over there.”

It is a parish where Hispanic ministry is especially strong. “They have almost 200 people at 5:30 Mass every Sunday. I think the Spanish people are great. It’s a new life for them, not only a new country but a new faith. They are learning to appreciate their faith. In years to come they will have their own parishes and outnumber the rest of us,” he said.

The priest is fluent in Spanish, having obtained a degree in the language from the University of South Carolina while serving two parishes in Columbia in the mid-’70s.

Father Burke attributes the change in the church in the Palmetto State since the ’50s to an influx of people from places such as Michigan and Ohio.

“Now it’s different. The people coming from the north have made a big difference. It’s not so much a mission diocese anymore. It was once. It is no more. It’s on it’s own now. That’s a big difference.”