By Marnie McAllister, Record Assistant Editor
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.
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.”
During their visits, which often were focused on fundraising, Miles said, they always stopped to spend time with her family.
“They would come to the house and spend the day with us,” she said. “They would play the piano and play cards and giggle and laugh. It was a lot of fun. Sister Emily was a baker and she would make these beautiful cakes. (They were) very loving.
“Sister Emily loved talking to children. She wanted to know everything, what we were doing in school,” Miles said she recalled. “Sister John, she was very quiet but she would smile all the time. The others were more active with the children — they were younger.”
The three sisters who stayed in the convent — Sister John, Sister Mary Dorothy and Sister Mary Emily — became teachers. They served at schools wherever the Oblate Sisters of Providence served.
At one time in the 1950s, the congregation had 300 sisters serving in several U.S. cities, Cuba and Costa Rica, according to the sisters’ website, www.oblatesisters.com.
Today, about 80 sisters serve in Baltimore, Costa Rica, Buffalo, N.Y., and Miami, Fla. They are teachers, pastoral ministers, social workers and they operate schools.
Sister Chineworth, who joined the community about the same time as the Burks sisters, said race played a major role in the options of African American women called to religious life at that time.
Religious communities, she said, “were all segregated. I was educated by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (in Rock Island, Ill.) and I couldn’t enter their order. They were an all-white order.
“I didn’t want to do anything else but to be a sister,” she said. “So that started a hunt. They (the Sisters of Charity) gave me the names of three black orders.”
She chose the Oblate Sisters, she said, because they were the oldest and largest.
“I’ve never been sorry,” she said. “I’ve lived a very good life and I’m an old lady now. Born in 1917.
“It’s always hard to leave home but there was a terrific joy with the sisters that compensated for the sadness,” she added.