Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington



From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302


Sister Immaculata Burke, Guatemala missionary, honored for 50 years of Religious life

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the Oct. 2, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

Sister Immaculate BurkeSister Immaculata Burke (right) is pictured at the dedication of a new health clinic in Chwi Patan, Guatemala, last July. (IR photo from the Guatemala Commission)

On Sept. 6, the Sisters of Charity of New York gathered at their motherhouse from many parts of the globe. They came together to celebrate the anniversaries of extended service of members of their community. Among them was the 50th anniversary of Religious life of Sister Immaculate Burke.

Sister Immaculate has spent 32 of her 50 years of Religious life working in the health programs of the Spokane Diocese’s mission in Guatemala.

“The people of both Spokane and of Guatemala have been profoundly blessed by the presence of Sister Immaculata,” said Bishop Skylstad. “Her energy and professionalism have improved and brightened the lives of countless numbers of the poor in our mission area over the past 30 plus years. We are deeply indebted to her and to the Sisters of Charity of New York for their dedication and service.”

The clinic and health programs in the Spokane Mission were begun by nuns from New York (Daughters of Mary Health of the Sick) in 1964. Four priests from Spokane were serving in Guatemala at the time. One was Father John Rompa, now pastor of St. Ann Parish, Spokane. Bishop Bernard Topel had also solicited help from several School Sisters of Notre Dame, including Sister Janet Druffel, who is still serving in Guatemala today.

In 1971, when Sister Immacu-lata arrived in Guatemala, the health programs had been operating for only five years. However, with a clinic in Novillero and satellite operations in Nahualá and Ixtahuacán, they were already serving a large number of native people in the mission area. Support for the activities came from the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women, St. Patrick Parish in Walla Walla, St. Patrick Parish in Pasco, and other sources.

During the intervening 32 years, Sister Immaculata, or “Madre,” as her patients call her, has expanded the health programs and has extended care to many more thousands of native people.

By 1973, she was reporting 40,000 visits per year to the clinics. By 1977, her clientele had increased to the point where her order, the Sisters of Charity of New York, decided to finance and rebuild the clinics in Novillero, Nahualá, and Ixtahuacán.

Sister Immaculata welcomed the first native medical doctor, Dr. Jose Miguel, to her Novillero Clinic in 1985. After years of assistance and personal encouragement to him, she now had a highly trained native, who understood the language and customs of the people. For his part, Dr. Miguel brought a new level of professionalism to the clinic activities. He remains totally dedicated to the service of his people to this day.

While Sister Immaculata shuns recognition and awards, her work reveals the unavoidable impact of her presence in Guatemala. Long lines of poor women wait for hours for the chance to consult with her. When young mothers are about to give birth, they call for her. If someone gets seriously injured from a mishap with a machete, they come to her for help. When she herself was hospitalized for pneumonia in 1994, many of the people hiked up over a range of mountains (at 12,000 elevation) to be at her bedside.

Pope John Paul II recognized her service to the poor by awarding her the papal medal “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” (For the Church and the Pontiff) in 1992.

Thanks largely to Sister Immaculata’s continuing effort to upgrade facilities, a new medical clinic was dedicated in Novillero in 1996. This has been followed by the relocation of the Ixtahuacán Clinic into improved facilities last year, and the dedication of a completely new clinic in Chwi Patan this past summer. As part of the general upgrade of facilities, all four locations (Novillero, Nahualá, Ixtahuacán, and Chwi Patan) are now converting their clinic databases to computerized operations.

Sister Immaculata’s next challenge is to upgrade the clinics even more. She senses a strong need to be able to perform some limited surgeries at the local level.

The first venture into this next level of service will be the performance of cataract surgeries in Novillero. Many natives in the highlands have impaired sight due to cataracts. They have no funds to travel elsewhere for medical care, and there are currently no means of correcting the problem locally.

Under Sister Immaculata’s guidance, the Novillero clinic is being equipped for surgical operations, to commence early next year. Equipment is currently being acquired and plans are underway to bring medical teams of doctors and nurses from Spokane to Novillero for the screening and surgical operations.

If activities proceed as planned, Sister Immaculata’s next goal, of giving sight to some who cannot see, will begin to materialize next year. No one knows what will come after that. But she has already surpassed anything that could be expected of a fragile nun coping in the rugged mountains of Northern Guatemala. After all, she earned the papal medal more than 10 years ago, when she was 72 years old. And she doesn’t appear to have slowed down a bit since then.

(Jerry Monks is a member of the diocese’s Guatemala Commission.)


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