The Archivist’s Nook: The First Catholic Action Hero

Photo-Young Burke-Paulists
Fr. John Burke, the young, vigorous, visionary priest ready to face the challenges of the twentieth century, ca. 1899. Paulist Archives.

June 6, 1875, is the birthday of the widely influential New York City born John Burke, a Catholic University of America (CUA) educated priest (.S.T.B. 1899; S.T.L., 1901) of the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, a religious community known as the Paulists. Burke saw a convergence of both American and Catholic values that inspired his visions of a national church. He was editor of The Catholic World, 1904-1922, where he promoted social reform via articles by CUA professors William J. Kerby and John A. Ryan. Burke also supported national organizations, helping establish the Catholic Press Association in 1911 and, in 1917, founding both the Chaplain’s Aid Association to supply priests for the military and the National Catholic War Council (NCWC), subject of an earlier blog post, to coordinate Catholic efforts with the government during the First World War. It’s not difficult to imagine why I call Burke, honored by church and state, The First Catholic Action Hero!

Fr. John Burke with board members of the National Council of Catholic Women, a group founded under his leadership as part of the NCWC, though now an independent entity in the twenty first century, 1920. USCCB Executive Department/Office of the General Secretary Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives of The Catholic University of America.
Fr. John Burke with board members of the National Council of Catholic Women, a group founded under his leadership as part of the NCWC, though now an independent entity in the twenty first century, 1920. USCCB Executive Department/Office of the General Secretary Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives of The Catholic University of America.

Burke directed operations that mobilized Catholic lay persons, monitored legislation, and undertook postwar reconstruction. He also created an ecumenical advisory group to the government on maintaining morality in military camps. The War Department thereafter recognized Burke with the Distinguished Service Medal. In 1919, and in succession to the War Council, the American hierarchy created the National Catholic Welfare Council (later Conference), also known (confusingly) as the NCWC, to promote Catholic social work, education, and immigration through a secretariat in Washington, D.C. headed by Burke as general secretary. The newly reconstituted NCWC immediately faced a major act of organized anti-Catholicism with the Oregon School Bill of 1922 declaring children could only attend public schools. Supported by the Ku Klux Klan, this was an assault against freedom of education in general and parochial schools in particular. Burke mobilized a broad spectrum of opposition, including the ACLU, and the U. S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the Oregon School Bill in 1925.

Mural by Polish born artist (who taught at CUA) Jan Henryk de Rosen of James, Cardinal Gibbons blessing Fr. John Burke at the USCCB Building, 4th Street, Washington, D.C., 2016, courtesy of Katherine Nuss, USCCB Information and Archive Services.

Having interacted with President Woodrow Wilson as head of the War Council, Burke engaged his successors in matters of import to American Catholics, ranging from congratulating Warren G. Harding for a 1922 speech on religious toleration to providing advice to Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, respectively, over conflicts in Mexico in 1927 and Haiti in 1929. Burke was an enthusiastic supporters of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal economic reforms. Burke actually wrote the drafts of several FDR letters to American prelates as well as the speech he gave at Notre Dame University in 1935. Most notably, Burke conferred with the President at the White House in August 1936 on how to deal with the stinging attacks that another Catholic priest, Charles Coughlin, was making against Roosevelt during the 1936 presidential campaign.

The Vatican recognized Burke’s work with an honorary Sacred Theology doctorate in 1927 and appointment as a domestic prelate (monsignor) in 1936, shortly before his death.  His sudden passing on October 30, 1936, shocked both the Catholic community and the nation and he was widely mourned. A collection of his personal papers is part of the Paulist Order’s archives, though research access is currently problematic at best. Fortunately, the records of both the National Catholic War Council and National Catholic Welfare Conference (now known as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) Office of the General Secretary), are housed and readily accessible at the CUA Archives.