Sister Elaine Burke, OSU: Mixing fun with a deep prayer life

Sister Elaine meets with Rusty Weitzel, one of the participants in the 2008 graduating class of the Spiritual Direction Institute.

Update: Sister Elaine Burke completed her ministries at Brescia University and with Cursillo in 2015. She continues as a volunteer at the RiverPark Center in Owensboro, Ky., and on the Liturgy Committee at the Mount.

Sister Elaine Burke’s mother would often ask her, “Elaine, can’t you just sit down for five minutes?”

Even after 60 years as an Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph, “no” is still the answer. “I’m looking for what’s next,” Sister Elaine said.

She balances her life on two areas many people would likely doubt possible – a deep spirituality and a desire to have fun.

“Elaine is fun-loving and yet can be serious when the occasion calls for seriousness,” said Sister Ann McGrew, who ministers with her in the Spiritual Direction Institute at Mount Saint Joseph. “She has a gift of laughter and song, listening, and she loves people. There is no age limit with her love for people,” Sister Ann said.

Sister Elaine is serious about her relationship with God, Sister Ann said. “When she leads music in church-related ceremonies, she takes the time to practice so the music is prayerful.”

In 2005, Sister Elaine began as the coordinator of the spiritual component of the ministry formation program at Brescia University in Owensboro, Ky.

“I gave retreats, ran meetings, got the students spiritual directors, and mentored some students,” she said. With the program in transition, she is now the physical and spiritual presence to the theology department.

“I offer spiritual direction for students and others. I accompany them on their journey with God,” she said. “I’m also available to meet the needs of the department. I’m available to run errands for them, proctor their exams, or just be a listening ear.

“I try to remain available to students where they are – at meal time, at the mailboxes, in the hallways, and at sporting events and other gatherings,” she said. “I love it, it frees me.”

Todd Butler, associate dean for academic affairs at Brescia and director of the ministry formation program, called Sister Elaine “one of the most wise and generous people I have ever known or worked with. Everybody who’s worked with her knows her strong work ethic, how much fun she is, and how deeply a spiritual person she is. She’s been an absolute beacon for me these four years.”

Sister Elaine was asked to remain as a presence because she means so much to the students, Butler said.

“Our students absolutely love her,” he said. “She goes out of her way to show she’s a real person. It’s not that she’s waiving any rules, part of her job is staying on the students, reminding them that they made a commitment to be at a retreat, or in spiritual direction.”

Sister Elaine (in the blue coat) is joined in a hay loft while on retreat with ministry formation students from Brescia University, and Todd Butler (right), who directed the program.

When on retreat with the students, “she’s the last one wanting to go to bed. She’s up talking to the students, laughing, and playing games,” Butler said.

The students know they can be serious and kid with Sister Elaine, he said. “We drove to Gethsemane Abbey for retreat a few years ago and Sister Elaine drove one of the cars,” Butler said. “After that, the students referred to her as ‘Sister Earnhardt.’ She’s a good driver, but she doesn’t waste much time.”

Another of Sister Elaine’s ministries is acting as spiritual adviser of Cursillo, a movement which seeks to promote individual and organized apostolic action. A men’s Cursillo is planned for this spring.

“It’s a course in Christianity,” she said. “They’ll get instructions in the sacraments, how to lead their lives because they’ve met Jesus Christ. They learn how to be a spiritual person in their environment. They are very involved in their parishes.”

Yet another ministry is serving on the team of the Spiritual Direction Institute with Sister Ann and Sister Marietta Wethington. It’s a two-year program through the Mount Saint Joseph Conference and Retreat Center to offer training and certification for people interested in becoming spiritual directors. The third class will graduate this summer.