Who We Are
Friar Stories: Journeys to Franciscan Life
Fr. Lawrence A. Burke, OFM
I was born and raised in Philadelphia with seven other siblings. At 15, I began to serve as an altar boy to a priest who came to my parish to recover from an accident. I attended St. Rose of Lima grammar school, and West Catholic high school. I was among the 500 students who graduated in 1938. In early October, the remaining 24 members gathered for a class reunion. Many of my classmates died during World War II.
I became interested in religious life right after high school and applied to the Franciscans. I spent two years at the Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., and three years in different formation houses before I went to Holy Name College in Washington, D.C., for my studies in theology.
I was ordained a priest on June 14, 1947. Shortly after, one of my classmates said to me: “Would you like to teach in a high school?” I said “Yes.” And that summer five of us newly ordained friars headed to Buffalo, N.Y., to join the faculty at Bishop Timon High School, situated on the second floor of the grade school of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in the First Ward.
We were welcomed by Father Claude Kean, OFM, and his staff of five friars who had just completed their first year. There were plans for a brand new school to be located on McKinley Parkway in South Buffalo. By 1950, the new building was ready and we moved in, with living quarters on the top floor. In my time, we had a total of 29 friars on the faculty.
We also went out on weekends to say Mass and hear confessions at parish churches in and out of the city. I had always been interested in art and was put in charge of the art club. I also had the opportunity to take classes at the Art Institute of Buffalo. It was a busy life!
After teaching there for six years, I was asked to come down to Paterson, N.J., to work on a Franciscan magazine called Friar, located in Rochelle Park, N.J. Father Rudolf Harvey, OFM, was the editor, Father Philip Nielsen, OFM, assistant editor. I was asked to be art director. It was an interesting challenge.
In preparation, I took classes at the New York School of Printing on 34th Street in Manhattan and the Art Students League on 57th Street. Through one of my fellow-students, I got to meet one of the editors of the New Yorker magazine, who arranged a meeting with the art department. They were more than willing to give their advice to help make Friar more attractive and readable. They even suggested that I submit some drawings to the New Yorker. I was quite pleased when they accepted some for publication.
I continued to work on Friar magazine until 1979 when it ceased publication, because we no longer had the friars who promote the magazine at parish Masses. In the course of those years with Friar magazine, Phil and I would cover Masses and confessions in parish churches and give weekend retreats to men at St. Bonaventure Friary in Paterson.
During my years at Paterson, fellow friars, Father Hubert Woods, Father Felician Foy, and I, formed a singing group called “The Three Friars.” We went around to parishes, mostly in the New Jersey area. One evening, some kids spotted us passing in our brown habits. One of them said: “Who are them guys?” The other kid said: “That’s the Salvation Army!”
Our theme song was “The Francis X. Burke Funeral Song.” (My brother, Franny, had worked for a funeral director in the Philadelphia area). It was sung to the tune of “O Christmas Tree.” The last verse was: “We roll you gently out of town; we are the last to let you down. We recommend, for those who can, the Francis X. Burke lay-away Plan.”
We also made a record of a song written by the songwriter John Redmond, who helped Father John Forest Loviner, OFM, the founder of St. Anthony’s Guild. It was a Mother’s Day song entitled: “The Second Sunday in May.” Other songs by John Redmond were: “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart’” and “Christmas in Killarney.”
My last 20 years have been spent as chaplain of a wonderful religious community called the Franciscan Sisters of Ringwood, located in one of the most beautiful areas of northern New Jersey. They have a retreat house, a convent for retired sisters, and a community of sisters who teach at St. Catherine of Bologna Parish School in Ringwood. They recently merged with the Franciscan Sisters of Philadelphia in Aston, Pa.
-- This essay appeared in the Winter 2008 issue of The Anthonian.