Christmas past resonates for oldest pastor

Sixty years ago, Monsignor William F. Burke (left) sported the same flat-top hairstyle as Johnny Unitas.

Monsignor William F. Burke, the oldest pastor in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, was ordained a priest 60 years ago, in 1959. Ten years ago, he was one of five men from his ordination class who reminisced with the Review about their first Christmas as a priest.

“I grew up on Park Circle (in northwest Baltimore) and as a boy went to St. Ambrose,” Monsignor Burke, 86, told the Review. “A lot of my Jewish friends that I grew up with wanted to come to midnight Mass, which always had a packed house. In those days, the only time you could have a midnight Mass was at Christmas.

“My first Christmas as a priest was at St. Mark in Catonsville. We had 6,000 people coming to church, and that was only 60 percent of the parish. Everything was all in Latin; you (the priest) faced the wall.”

That was, Monsignor Burke reminded the Review in a recent phone interview, three years before St. Mark completed its “new” church, in 1962.

That construction typified the growth seen in western Baltimore County at the time, as the Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn began welcoming employees in January 1960. The Archdiocese of Baltimore had its own new edifice to admire and enjoy, as the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Homeland, having been dedicated Nov. 15, 1959, celebrated its first Christmas the same year as the young Father Burke.

Secular matters were on the minds of many in Baltimore that year. Two days after Christmas, on Dec. 27, in the only National Football League championship game played in the Monumental City, the Colts opened the fourth quarter with 24 unanswered points to beat the New York Giants, 31-16. It was a rematch of the “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the 1958 classic won in overtime by the Colts at Yankee Stadium.

Like Colts’ quarterback Johnny Unitas, the young Father Burke sported a flat-top hairstyle.

“I grew it out when everyone else did,” he said.

After a stint at St. Ann in Baltimore, Monsignor Burke became pastor of St. Francis of Assisi in Mayfield in November 1980. This year will mark his 40th Christmas there. He’ll celebrate the 5 p.m. Mass on Christmas Eve, and the 11:30 a.m. Mass on Christmas Day.

Over the years, he has come to expect ministering to larger than normal gatherings on the Feast of the Nativity of the Lord.

“You learn, early on, to do nothing but welcome them back,” Monsignor Burke said. “It’s a homecoming experience. Some haven’t been to church for a while, and plenty of others are regulars. Regardless, Jesus’s birthday calls us all together.”

Email Paul McMullen at pmcmullen@CatholicReview.org

 

Paul McMullen

Paul McMullen

Paul McMullen has served as the managing editor of the Catholic Review since 2008.

The author of two books, Paul has been involved in local media since age 12, when he began delivering The News American to 80 homes in his neighborhood. He began his journalism career with the Capital-Gazette Newspapers in Anne Arundel County, and spent more than 25 years as a sports writer for The Sun in Baltimore. His favorite writing assignments have included the Summer Olympics in Australia and Greece, the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and “Feet for Francis,” a 2015 walking pilgrimage from the Baltimore Basilica to Philadelphia to see Pope Francis.