Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

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

Long-time Guatemala missionary, ‘beloved’ Sister Immaculata, near death

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the October 18, 2012 edition of the Inland Register)

Sister Immaculata Burke in 2009 (IR file photo by Eric Meisfjord)

As this issue of the Inland Register goes to press, Sister Immaculata Burke, the registered nurse and nun who has ministered to the poor in the Spokane Mission in Guatemala for 41 years, is gravely ill. But don’t count her out, for she is a survivor, as the following narrative will attest.

Born in Ireland 92 years ago, “Bridget” Burke gained nursing experience in England, India, and The Bahamas prior to joining the Sisters of Charity in New York (SCNY), where she became Sister Immaculata. Then it was off to the rugged mountains of Guatemala. Her long-standing dedication to the health of the Mayan people of the Spokane Mission area has now become legendary to the thousands of Indians she has so faithfully served.

Sister Immaculata arrived in the Highlands of Northwestern Guatemala in 1971. She immediately took on the challenge of managing three remote area clinics and the preparation of native health promoters. During the next four decades her life became a compendium of devoted service ranging from prenatal care for young mothers, to food for starving families, and medical aid to everyday and disaster victims.

Sister Immaculata’s mission of bringing health care to native Guatemalans has not been easy. In many cases she had to first overcome cultural inhibitions, such as when she tried to introduce vaccinations in the isolated village of Tzamjuyub, where 75 children had previously died from a measles epidemic. But she persevered. Her efforts reduced rates of infant mortality, and she soon gained the trust and respect of the people. Before long, when children saw her 4WD on the mountain roads, they would run long distances to greet her. (And she usually had a few lollipops to toss out to them!)

When hurricanes and earthquakes battered Guatemala, Sister Immaculata was one of the first on the scene. She brought emergency physical and spiritual care to assist those whose lives were disrupted by natural disasters. Of course, she handled the daily needs of the poor in their thatched-roof huts as well. She has delivered more newborns in dirt-floored homes than can be counted, many of whom today bear the name “Immaculata” in reverence to her.

Sister Immaculata has been the conduit of medicines for her clinics from the Spokane Diocese for many years. In earlier times, she guided the education of Dr. José Miguel MD, who serves in the clinics today. If a family needed a special operation for a handicapped or disabled member, Sister Immaculata would plead their cause to a visiting physician, or a distant hospital. In 2004 and 2006, she arranged for medical teams from Spokane to come to the Highlands for cataract surgery to give eyesight to “her people.” Indians in the remote areas were notified by the “Voice of Nahualá” radio. Nearly 50 surgeries were completed, including Carmelita Chavez, who had cataracts in both eyes, and was soon able to see her 6-month-old baby for the first time.

Guatemala’s Civil War was a fearful time for Sister Immaculata and all other Catholic Religious in Guatemala. Father David Baronti, a priest of the Spokane Diocese who serves in the Guatemala mission, narrowly escaped death by leaving the country for two months. He had been in a rosary procession with more than 50 others, all of whom were later murdered. His friend and fellow missioner, Father Stan Rother of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, was gunned down in his parish rectory in 1981. Sister Immaculata’s name was reported to have been at the top of a death list during the 1980s, but she refused to leave her people. Her SCNY associate, Sister Bobbie Ford, who was working with some of the victims of the violence, was later killed by a shot to the head.

Sister Immaculata has endured countless storms, epidemics, and road hazards, such as having a gun held to her head by robbers. But her unwavering trust in God’s providence, and the personal joy she has realized by elevating the dignity of her native people, have carried her quietly and humbly through the many traumas. She visited Spokane in October 1992, and traveled to St. Patrick Parish in Pasco where she was awarded the papal medal for her missionary work. In accepting the medal from Bishop William Skylstad, Sister Immaculata said: “In a very special way we celebrate the poor with whom we live and work and pray, as well as the many dedicated people who collaborate with us…. We are celebrating our oneness in Christ.”

A few weeks ago, when some representatives from Spokane were visiting her convent in Novillero, Sister Immaculata asked one of them to drive her 4WD vehicle, up the 10,500 feet elevation Inter American Highway, to her clinic in New Ixtahuacán. After arriving, Sister donned her white clinic coat and was off to work meeting with those who had come to the clinic that day. There she was, 92 years old, still serving her beloved people!

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

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