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Family affair: the five sisters who became Sisters

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Deacon Greg Kandra - published on 08/13/13

An amazing saga, from the Louisville Record: 

Sister Mary Emily Burks, a Louisville native who died last month at age 92, was one of five siblings who, in the 1930s and 40s, joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Baltimore, Maryland. The sisters grew up as members of St. Augustine Church at 13th Street and West Broadway near downtown Louisville. They were among eight siblings — six daughters and two sons of Emma and Charles Burks. Oblate Sister of Providence Mary Emily Burks, left, is pictured in 2008 with Sister Aracelly Salazar in this image captured by photographer André Chung. Click on the image for full size view on the photographer’s website. (Photo Special to The Record by André Chung) The young women were teenagers at the time they joined the convent. Those who knew them say they were dedicated to their faith and to the teaching mission of the Oblate Sisters, an African American foundation that dates to 1829. “Each one was an individual. They were all very loyal to the congregation and to one another,” said Sister Mary Alice Chineworth, an Oblate Sister of Providence who remembers the Burks sisters fondly. “I even knew their mother. Very charming and very sweet. “They lived good steady lives,” Sister Chineworth noted. “They were very good religious and that’s the best thing you can say about someone in this life. They lived a life of charity.” Sister John Burks, the eldest Burks sister, was the first to join the congregation in the early to mid 1930s, according to Sister Chineworth, who entered the convent in 1936 and said Sister John was already in the community. Sister John Burks is deceased. The late Sisters Mary Emily and Mary Dorothy followed her there in 1941, according to family reports. Sylvia Miles, a member of St. Martin de Porres Church in Louisville and a niece of the Burks sisters, said she consulted family members to trace the history of the sisters, who were greatly admired and loved by the family. Miles is the daughter of Paul Burks, one of the brothers. (The other brother died in infancy.) Another sister, Joanne Burks, joined the community not long after the others, but she left after some years, Miles noted. Joanne Burks returned home to Louisville where she taught special education. She is in poor health now and was unable to give an interview, Miles said. A fifth sister, Lillian, joined the convent but became ill soon after and returned home, Miles said. She is deceased. Dorothy Burks Gregory, the sister who did not join the convent, also is in poor health, Miles added. As a child, Miles said, she and others in the community admired the sisters and were always excited when they came to visit. “The Burks sisters had a tremendous influence on the black community and St. Augustine parish,” she said. “For the first time in their lives many African American children saw African American nuns, which was a source of pride, admiration and the realization of the important role that African American women played in the Catholic Church.”

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