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Obituary of Fr Thomas Burke

Fr Thomas Burke died on Monday 10th September 2018. Born in Cragga, Bala in County Mayo in the west of Ireland on 5th May 1923, one of six children born to John and Mary Burke, the young Thomas was educated locally until the age of 16 and later from 1952-54 at Campion House, Osterley having been accepted as a student for the priesthood in the Diocese of Westminster, before going to the diocesan seminary, St Edmund’s College, Ware. Before acceptance as a student for the diocese, Thomas had worked in Ireland as a clerk in the New Ireland Assurance Company, and in London as a clerk with British Railways. Thoughts about offering himself for the priesthood came to Thomas at a young age, but he remained in Mayo due to his father’s ill-health and declared his intention to apply to the Diocese in 1951, at the age of 28. The Superior at Campion House commented on Thomas’ assiduity at study, his zeal to help others, his devotion to prayer and to duty. Similar reports were given by the President of St Edmund’s College. Fellow seminarians found Thomas to be likeable, and somewhat reserved. Thomas was ordained to the priesthood in Westminster Cathedral on 11th June 1960 by Cardinal Godfrey.

Fr Tom served in the parish of St Thomas of Canterbury, Fulham. In 1967 illness necessitated his return to Ireland for treatment and rest. He had thoughts of offering himself for missionary work overseas but recognised that his age and poor health were obstacles. In the winter of 1968, after a holiday in Uganda, he returned to Westminster where he served as Assistant Priest in Willesden Green then Northfields. In 1970 he requested and was given permission to have time away from the diocese due to illness. His testimonial letter, written by the Vicar General, described Fr Tom as ‘a hard working priest and completely worthy of any trust which may be given to him.’ He returned to Ireland for treatment and rest. Life and ministry in London no longer suited Fr Tom, and the Diocese recognised this and supported Fr Tom’s need and desire to remain in Ireland, benefitting from the relative tranquility. He had his own house in Athlone, with nine acres of land, and he provided supply ministry locally and in counties Westmeath and Offaly. In 1978 Fr Tom felt well enough to return to Westminster, and he was appointed to serve as Assistant Priest in East Acton. However, soon after taking up the appointment health issues continued to cause concern and on medical advice Fr Tom returned to Ireland for weekly treatment in Dublin while living in Mayo. Fr Tom was apologetic that his personal situation meant he had to be considered as retired from ministry in Westminster, and was supported in this by Cardinal Basil Hume. The Vicar General, Mgr Ralph Brown, kept in touch with Fr Tom and ensured that his material needs were supported by the diocese. Fr Tom was grateful for the understanding and assistance given to him.

Fr Tom became involved in the work of Knock Shrine in County Mayo, serving as a Chaplain. When Pope Saint John Paul II visited Knock in September 1979 to mark the centenary of the apparitions, Fr Thomas was there accompanying sick pilgrims, and was pleased to meet Cardinal Hume at that time. Fr Tom lived at St Francis, Churchfield, Knock. He continued to receive support from the diocese, and visits from bishops and priests of the diocese when they were in the vicinity. Over the years Fr Tom became a familiar figure at the shrine, celebrating daily Mass in the Apparition Chapel and did so until just a few months before his death. He had a devoted following among parishioners and pilgrims. He was something of an expert on the history of Knock and the surrounding area, and he persuaded Mrs (later Dame) Judy Coyne: the founder of the Knock Shrine Society in the 1930s with Liam, her husband, to write her memoirs. She did write her memoirs, on the understanding that they would be published only after her death. She died in 2002, aged 97, and publication as a book followed, ‘Providence My Guide’, a mine of information on the development of Knock Shrine and the religious culture of the west of Ireland.

Faithful to his prayers and to the daily celebration of Mass, and attentive to the needs of parishioners and pilgrims, Fr Tom’s own needs necessitated admission to the Ave Maria Nursing Home in Ballyhaunis, County Mayo where he lived in recent months before dying, aged 95 having served as a priest, predominantly in Ireland, for 58 years. May he rest in peace.

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