It is no surprise that Sister Joan Burke speaks of the globe as “my village.” She has worked in different parts of Africa (Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, and Kenya) for most of her decades as an SNDdeN. Where she has been and what she has done is quite incredible.
It all began in a very Catholic family in Millbrae, Cal., where Joan was the youngest of four daughters. From her early years, she felt affinity with the story of St. Julie Billiart and Francoise Blin de Bourdon, the SNDdeN co-foundresses, and their experience of founding the congregation in France and Belgium during the French Revolution. This stayed with her even throughout her student days at Mercy High School, Burlingame, Cal. She always speaks with appreciation for her four years there. After graduation from College of Notre Dame (now Notre Dame de Namur University) she taught high school in Alameda and Belmont, Cal. She also gained a degree in library science from the University of California at Berkeley.
Sister Joan spent a year in France working with an organization called the International Movement ATD Fourth World. Prior to this assignment she had served eight years as Notre Dame de Namur NGO Representative at the United Nations. There she learned of ATD, which is dedicated to people living in deep poverty and accompanying them in their struggles to realize their aspirations.
In a way, Sister Joan has been “on the road” since her mid-twenties when she was named the congregation Mission Secretary, based in Rome, and visited our ministries on five continents. She became fascinated with the interplay of the Gospel and culture, which led to intensive study and three degrees from Oxford University in social anthropology. During close to 20 years in Africa, she was engaged in understanding the religious life among African women. This interest culminated in a book she wrote, titled “Towards the Inculturation of Religious Life in Africa: A Case Study and Reflection Guide.”
Many will not remember, nor even imagine, that for one brief year of transition (1976) Sister Joan served as the coordinator of school lunch programs for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Bishop Pierre DuMaine enjoyed recalling he met her when she was a “milk maid!”
Joan served in adult education at Tangaza University College in Nairobi and as a member of the Kenya Provincial Leadership Team. She was part of an organization that supports the professional development of women congregational leaders in Africa.
Sister Joan returned to the U.S. from Africa in August 2020, and is now one of contacts and facilitators in the SNDdeN U.S. East-West Province for a 7-year sustainability project that originated with Pope Francis' Laudato Si'.