By Fr. Dennis Gonzales
We all have stories that put a smile on our face every time we share or remember them in our quiet moments. When we find the thread that ties the story together, we tell ourselves, “Now I understand why that happened.” I call those stories providential. They manifest God’s presence in subtle ways. Those events surely brought meaning to life, and enrich human experiences. This story is one of them:
One day in September of 2013, when I was in my office preparing for my Sunday homily, I got a call from one of our parishioners at St. Helen’s in Vero Beach, Florida. This thriving parish was my first assignment after priestly ordination.
The caller spoke with a weak, crackly, and hoarse voice. He politely asked if I had the time to pay him a visit in his residence. He was becoming frail. In fact, he only used a wheelchair to move around. He could no longer go to the church. I happily complied with his request. We scheduled an appointment.
He lived in a well-appointed assisted living facility not far from the church. When I walked in, his door was opened wide. It conveyed warmth and welcome to an expected visitor. He was seated on a sofa immediately inside the door. As I came in, he greeted me and took my hand and pressed it on his forehead. I did the same thing to him. This gesture is part of the Filipino tradition of showing respect to elders. It also means asking blessings from a priest. He said that he was looking forward to meeting me. He introduced himself as Mr. Bill Burke.
Bill was 90 years old. He originally came from Boston, Massachusetts. Like many northeasterners, he came to Florida to retire.
Bill showing the photo of the grave marker of his brother, Fr. James Burke.
Bill told me that his neighbor always brought him the Church bulletin every Sunday. He read it from front to back, including the ads! He learned that there was a newly ordained priest from the Philippines in the parish. Bill said, “I was thrilled to know about you. I have a special connection with the Philippines. I went to your country once with my parents to visit my brother, who was a missionary priest. He was assigned in the Southern Philippines.”
That’s exciting! Mindanao! That’s where I came from. Mindanao is one of the larger islands of the Philippines, located south of Manila. I continued, “What’s your brother’s name?” He quickly answered, “Fr. James Burke. He belonged to the missionary congregation called the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI).”
Of course, I know of the OMIs or fondly called the Oblates. They have a prolific apostolate in my hometown. The Oblates administer parishes, educational institutions, livelihood programs, peace advocacy organizations, you name it. In fact, I attended and finished college in an Oblate university, known as Notre Dame University, located in Cotabato City.
Something came to mind after hearing the name, Fr. James Burke. The main building of the university was named after Fr. James Burke. Commonly known as the Burke Building, it houses the administration offices, department offices, student commons, and other key academic centers. The higher floors are used as classrooms. I remember taking some of my courses in humanities and liberal arts in that building. The name Burke has become a “household name” to alumni and students.
Bill gestured in approval by nodding his head while I was sharing every piece of my story. “That’s it! That’s it!” he exclaimed with excitement.
Then it was Bill’s turn to tell his story. He was the older of only two brothers and siblings in the family. They grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, in a close-knit Irish family. They were active at church. Sunday was always a big day for them. He and Fr. James were altar servers. It was evident that Fr. James had always wanted to become a priest at a very young age.
Fr. James was among the top students of his class. He had a passion for reading, writing, music, and sports. He excelled not only in academics, but in almost all departments at school. He was outgoing and friendly. He loved to play with other kids. He knew everyone in the neighborhood.
After high school, Fr. James went to a boarding school administered by the Oblates. Bill said that their parents were very supportive of Fr. James’s vocation to the priesthood. Having a priest in the family was always a source of pride for Irish Catholic parents.
In 1941, a few years after his ordination, Fr. James, along with other missionary priests from the province were sent to a mission in the Philippines. It was only a few years before the Second World War broke out in 1945.
Bill recalled that their family had a difficult ordeal during the duration of the war. He remembered how concerned his parents were about Fr. James’ safety and whereabouts. They did not have communication with Fr. James for several months. They patiently and anxiously waited every day for news or letters from the Philippines. “Mom would always check the mailbox several times a day.”
One sunny afternoon, they saw an oblate priest approaching their home. “It was frightening to wait what kind of news he had to reveal. While saying that everything is ok, he picked a card from his pocket and handed it over to mom.” Bill recalled how his mother exclaimed with joy upon learning and reading the greetings from Fr. James. He was brought to safety at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila with other missionaries.
When the war ended, Fr. James went back to Mindanao to start the post-war rehabilitation with the Oblates. Fr. James would later become the rector of the college, the present Notre Dame University. He rose in the ranks and became the provincial superior of the Oblates in the Philippines.
Unfortunately, He died of a massive heart attack in his sleep on May 21, 1963, at a young age. His family was not able to go to the Philippines to attend his funeral. Various circumstances, which included the failing health of their mother, prevented them from traveling. The Oblates assured their family that he would be laid to rest with a burial befitting his service as a missionary.
They learned that his earthly farewell was attended by many people—students, teachers, professionals, farmers, military—Christians and Muslims alike. People from all walks of life gathered together to pay respect to Fr. James. He touched so many lives. He contributed to unity and progress of the community he served.
Knowing that he would be buried in an Oblate cemetery was comforting to his family. “We knew that there will always be someone to look after his grave. Priests would always offer prayers and masses for him.”
I assumed that Fr. James was buried in the Oblate cemetery in Tamontaka, a suburb of Cotabato City. I knew that Bill would like to see some pictures of his brother’s gravesite.
I contacted Fr. Francis Zabala, who was the Oblate formator at that time. Fr. Francis would then become the current president of Notre Dame University. I met Fr. Francis through a common friend, way back in the early 2000s when I was studying at Washington Theological Union. Fr. Francis visited Washington, DC after finishing his doctorate studies in Chicago.
Since we were both on Facebook, I dropped him a note, asking if he or someone he knew could take photos of Fr. James’ gravesite. Fr. Francis resided in the Oblate formation House in Manila. But he was scheduled to fly to Mindanao in a few weeks to visit his family. He was kind and generous with his time to make a special trip to Tamontaka. He shot several angles of Fr. James’ gravesite. He sent me the pictures towards early December 2013. Upon receiving them, I immediately drove to Kinko’s and bound them into a scrapbook. It turned out to be my Christmas present to Bill.
I handed Bill the scrapbook. The picture of the marble-like grave marker of Fr. James’ tomb was depicted on its cover. Bill looked at the stone and the booming flowers surrounding the grave. “They represent life and joy. I am sure James is in Heaven.”
Turning every page of that scrapbook was a powerful and moving scenario. It was both a sacred and a nostalgic moment. It brought Bill to the memories of his childhood he shared with his brother and parents. That was a moment of healing, peace, and joy.
Bill said, “It is comforting to know that James has a decent resting place. I am very grateful that the people whom he chose as his second family continue to remember him. I feel like I found my long lost brother. I personally found another wonderful conclusion of his narratives. These pictures are treasures, one of my best Christmas presents.”
Bill introduced me to his family. They told me that they are moving to another town with Bill in the middle of the upcoming year. They wanted their father to be closer to them. He needed more constant and focused care as he got frailer.
I had not heard from Bill for a spell. Until one day, I received a card from his daughter. She wrote that Bill had died. “The pictures of Uncle James’ gravesite brought tremendous joy to dad on his last remaining days of life. We can’t thank you enough. We appreciate how much you’ve done for our family.”
The story of Bill reminded me that every human encounter is sacred. Every interaction is an opportunity for healing. We need to pay particular attention to how God manifests himself in our midst. God always works to bring people together. He renews life and heals those wounds that needed to be tended.
God’s wonders do not usually take place in the grandest of things. God usually manifests himself in simple and ordinary circumstances of everyday life. He surprises us with people or situations that we come upon unexpectedly. It is always an awe-inspiring experience to witness those sacred moments of healing and renewal. Even in the most ordinary way.
Fr. Dennis Gonzales is a priest of the Diocese of Palm Beach. He is currently parochial vicar of St. Ann Church in West Palm Beach, Florida. He is an alumnus of Notre Dame University, Cotabato City, graduating with BS Nursing in 1993.