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

After nearly 40 years of transforming the lives of Guatemala’s poor, nurse seeks replacement

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the March 18, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)

Sister Immaculata Burke of the Sisters of Charity of New York is pictured with two young friends at a resettlement village around the 11,000-feet elevation area of Chiquisis after Hurricane Stan in 2004. The downpour washed out homes, isolated villages and caused the loss of about 1,000 lives. Temporary housing assistance came from USAID. Sister Immaculata has served the medical needs of the poor in the Spokane Mission in Guatemala for 39 years. At 90 years of age, she is now seeking a replacement. (IR photo courtesy of the Guatemala Commission)

It’s a frosty morning at the 8,500 ft. level in Northern Guatemala. The persistent rap... rap... rap on the heavy wooden door tells the occupants that somebody is in need of immediate help. Although it is only 7 a.m., that’s not early for Sister Immaculata to respond. She has already been up for over an hour. She’s built a fire in the kitchen stove, made cofffee, and joined Sister Marie Tolle in the nippy chapel room for their daily Liturgy of the Hours.

The Mayan woman tapping on the door of the Sisters’ convent in Novillero is less than five feet tall and bundled in a traditional shawl that hides a one-year-old on her back. In a soft-spoken mixture of K’iche and Spanish she explains that her neighbor is in labor and having a difficult time. Could the “Madre” please journey up the mountain path with her right away to help with the delivery?

It wouldn’t be the first delivery for Sister Immacualta Burke. She is a registered nurse who has delivered so many babies she long ago stopped counting. If pressured to do so, she could even identify some local girls who are also named “Immaculata” in appreciation of her compassionate care for the women of the area.

Sister Immaculata’s lifeline stretches from a childhood in the serene countryside of Ireland to the volcanic mountains of her beloved Guatemala. Her 90 years have been characterized by self-discipline, dedication, service, and an abundance of faith. This has enabled her to deal with everything from medical emergencies, to hurricanes, and even war-zone conflicts.

In earlier years, “Bridget” Burke gained medical credentials and nursing experience in England, India, the Bahamas, and New York. While in the United States she joined the Sisters of Charity of New York (SCNY) and chose to carry her medical skills and spiritual disposition to one of the most impoverished areas of Central America.

Sister Immaculata traveled to the Diocese of Spokane’s mission in Guatemala in 1971, along with Sisters Marie Tolle and Doris Pagano, also SCNY. The highlands proved to be a very rugged, mountainous area with thousands of K’iche-speaking Indians living in primitive dirt-floored huts without water or electricity.

Upon arriving in Novillero, Sister Immaculata took over the direction of three remote clinics and medical care to families scattered over a vast area. Although some of the local Mayans could make their way through the mountains to the clinics, many could not. One of her first responsibilities was to train health promoters in hygiene, nutrition, and midwifery so they could bring medical care to people in roadless areas. She also conducted pre-natal and baby clinics, and carried out vaccination, dental, and other programs.

During her nearly 40 years of service in the Spokane Mission, Sister Immaculata has amassed a resume that could be the inspirational basis for a documentary. Shortly after arriving in Guatemela, a measles epidemic swept the rural area, killing over 50 children in one of the villages. She had the life-sustaining challenge of convincing skeptical natives of the benefits of vaccination. Many people are probably alive today because of her dedicated persistence.

The Guatemalan Civil War of the 1980s posed an even greater threat to natives of the Highlands, and especially to Catholic religious leaders. Over 200,000 people were killed, including many catechists, priests, and Religious who championed the welfare of the poor. In 1981, early in the conflict, she learned that her name was on a death list. However, she chose to stay in the region, and continued her ministry to the people she loved. She survived the violence, but had to witness the death of some of her colleagues, such as Father Stan Rother and Sister Barbara Ford, a fellow Sister of Charity.

A brief summary can only touch the surface of one who has accomplished so much for so many in such difficult situations. More could be written about her care for deformed children, helping the outcast, and arranging for dental care or cataract surgeries for those who are in most need. More could be written about honors, such as receiving the papal medal (1992) that is one of the highest recognitions of service in the Catholic Church.

Dr. José Miguel, who has worked with Sister Immacualta for many years, currently has responsibility for directing the clinic and health care activities in the mission. And, at 90 years of age, Sister Immaculata feels it is time to find someone to take over her other duties. She has guided much progress in the past, but much remains to be done in a region that serves thousands of the most needy in Central America.

The Sisters of Charity of New York and the Diocese of Spokane are both actively searching for a replacement for Sister Immacualta. The candidate must be a registered nurse who can communicate in Spanish and is willing to make a three-year commitment to serve the poor. He or she will be working with Dr. Miguel, and will receive the small stipend that is currently provided by the Diocese of Spokane. Housing is available on-site near one of the clinics. Anyone interested is invited to phone Sister Margaret O’Brien in New York (718-549-9200) or Clara Monks in Spokane (509-466-3995).

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

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