Monsignor William F. Burke, a retired pastor who served the St. Francis of Assisi parish in Baltimore for more than 40 years and was known for a commitment to social justice, died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease Friday at Stella Maris Hospice in Timonium. He was 89.
Born in Baltimore and raised in Park Heights, he was the son of Katherine Kelly Burke, a homemaker, and Richard J. Burke, an auto salesman.
After graduating from what is now Loyola Blakefield in 1951, he attended the then Loyola College in Maryland. He decided to enter the priesthood and completed his undergraduate studies at St. Mary’s Seminary and University. He earned degrees in philosophy and theology from the then American College of Louvain in Belgium.
While a student overseas, he learned French and traveled by motorbike. He was ordained as a priest in 1959.
“Bill Burke was authentic. There was no artifice about him,” said the Rev. Gerard Bowen, a friend who is pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Columbia. “He was sincere and not interested in promoting himself.”
Monsignor Burke went on to serve at St. Mark’s in Catonsville and later at St. Ann’s Church at Greenmount Avenue and 22nd Street.
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When riots broke out after the April 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, Monsignor Burke recalled that a pharmacy near the church was set on fire during a Palm Sunday procession.
By the next Sunday, his parish had set up a food distribution center. Monsignor Burke recalled it was a “beautiful Easter Sunday.”
The distribution center remained in place for decades.
He was later at St. Mary Star of the Sea in Federal Hill and St. Elizabeth’s Church in Patterson Park. He was also a chaplain at the University of Maryland professional schools.
In addition, he was the Baltimore Archdiocese’s director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the anti-poverty and social justice arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where he held the position for nearly five decades.
In 1980 he was named pastor of Saint Francis of Assisi Church in the Mayfield-Lake Montebello section of Northeast Baltimore. He retired in 2021.
Monsignor Richard J. Bozzelli, a friend, said Monsignor Burke’s devotion to charitable causes came from his personal style.
“He was totally without pretense,” said Monsignor Bozzelli, who served as a seminarian with him in the 1990s.
“He appreciated the ordinariness of people and the simplicity of their lives. The first thing he introduced seminarians to was the bucket and mop, and said ‘If you aren’t willing to do it yourself, you have no business asking anybody else to do it.’”
Years later, when a personnel officer for the archdiocese asked him if he would like to change assignments, Monsignor Burke replied, “Is there anything wrong with being happy?”
Members of his parish said he he was a strong leader and kept the St. Francis School open.
Monsignor Burke once preached, “You knew you weren’t ordained just to celebrate Mass each day and take Communion to sick people. You were there beyond that, to listen, to understand, to be patient, but also, I think to be effective in bringing about change.”
His friend, Father Bowen, recalled that Monsignor Burke liked simple pleasures.
“He’d suggest going to Corned Beef Row in East Baltimore for takeout sandwiches and then going to Federal Hill, where we’d sit on a bench,” said Father Bowen. “He loved the comings and goings of ordinary people and had a gift for seeing the presence of God in them.”
“Bill Burke loved a table full of people and having a good time, laughing and being sociable,” said Ellen Adajian, his former music director. “He did not make himself the center of attention but he did appreciate a parish gathering — a bull roast, crab feast or a spaghetti dinner.”
She also said he wore clothes until they were falling apart.
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“If he had something nice, he gave it away,” she said. “His commitment to social justice was huge. When he was asked, ‘When do you not help somebody?,’ he replied, ‘When you are absolutely certain it’s not Jesus.’”
His nephew, Jim Duffy said, “Bill had a calm demeanor. His favorite saying was, ‘It will all work out.’”
“He had a philosophy about community and the importance of the local parish. He often said, ‘As goes the parish, so goes the neighborhood,’” said the Rev. J. Joseph Hart, a Diocese of Maryland Episcopal priest and friend.
Monsignor Burke traveled to France and liked to stay in Paris. Friends said his idea of a good lunch there was a ham and cheese sandwich from a bakery, then finding a park bench to enjoy it on.
A dog fancier, he owned Labrador retrievers he kept at the Assisi.
Monsignor Burke will lie in repose from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at St. Francis of Assisi Church, 3615 Harford Road. A funeral will be held at 10:30 a.m. Friday. Baltimore Archbishop William Lori will preside.
Survivors include his brother, Charles J. Burke of Towson, and numerous nieces and nephews.