Ed Burke did not hear God’s voice blatantly calling him to the priesthood. It took years of listening to his mother share the adventurous stories of Catholic saints before he understood that God had great things in store for him, and he slowly found his calling to become a “spiritual hero” like them.
“That’s what first got me started thinking,” Burke said, looking back to what piqued his interest in the priesthood. “Yes, I’ve been made to do something great with my life.”
As a child, Burke romanticized the idea of becoming a saint and laying down one’s life for God, but acting upon that desire in a faith-driven fashion was a step beyond his early understanding.
Today, Burke is a 25-year-old seminarian for the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau and is enrolled at Mount Angel Seminary, an apostolate of the Benedictine monks of Mount Angel Abbey, in Marion County, Oregon. He is the archdiocese’s only seminarian at the moment. He is currently serving at St. Benedict Parish in Anchorage as part of his “boots on the ground” training for the priesthood, which typically takes place in the second or third year of major seminary, Burke said.
Burke, born and raised in Kenai, comes from a blue-collar, “big homeschooling Catholic family,” he said. He is one of 12 children.
“Faith was just really important in our lives,” he said.
Burke, unlike most American children in this day and age, did not grow up with a television in his home. The closest thing to watching a movie before bed was listening to his mother read stories to his family every night. Those stories were typically from the Bible or about Catholic saints’ adventures across the world.
“That’s the first place that I really saw the priesthood as something attractive,” he said — although becoming a priest wasn’t necessarily his first plan as a child. Burke noted that at his childhood parish, Our Lady of the Angels in Kenai, there was no resident priest when he was young, like most rural diocesan parishes at the time, so he was accustomed to meeting new priests twice a month when Mass was offered. So, he associated the priesthood with traveling and adventure.
North American martyrs like Father Isaac Jogues and Father Jean de Brébeuf, who happens to be his confirmation saint, fascinated him the most.
“He was like a man’s man,” Burke said about St. de Brébeuf. “I’m a super avid outdoorsman. I absolutely love Alaska to the max. So, that was the initial human way that I connected with him.”
St. de Brébeuf of Condé-sur-Vire, Normandy, France, entered the Society of Jesus in 1617 and was ordained a priest in 1623, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica’s website. In 1625, he landed in New France, the area colonized by France in North America; and within a year, he was assigned the role of Christianizing the Huron people between Georgian Bay and Lake Huron, the website noted. It went on to say that the saint eventually mastered the Huron people’s language and recorded it for future missionaries. Britannica noted that he lived a harsh life in constant danger of death until the English forced him to return to France in 1629.
The priest eventually returned in 1634, helping establish the first European settlement in what is now Ontario and 18 missions, but he was eventually captured by the Iroquois people, a rival tribe to the Huron people, then tortured and killed, according to Britannica.
Burke’s awe and appreciation of St. de Brébeuf’s mission in North America and his alleged strength, humility, and survivalist mentality throughout his years of persecution enamored Burke‘s interest in the life of a priest.
Just like St. de Brébeuf, Burke enjoys exploring and surviving in the wilderness. Burke noted that most of his adolescent life was spent in Kenai’s surrounding forest, where he prayed and hunted game like his idol.
Although Burke, as a child, was mesmerized by the idea of becoming a saint, he was unsure how and if he should make that dream come to fruition.
“There was never, you know, a ‘road to Damascus’ moment … this one sudden call to gradually build upon it,” he said. “Nobody can white-knuckle their way to holiness … you have to receive the grace and it has to be a gift to you from God.”
Burke’s turning point, as he says, was when he attended the Alaska Catholic Youth Conference before his sophomore year of high school in 2013. The conference was held in Anchorage at Lumen Christi Catholic High School and St. Benedict Parish.
“That was completely life-changing for me,” he said. “That’s where I went from knowing a ton about Jesus to actually starting to know Jesus as a person.”
At the conference, Burke along with about 300 other young Catholics met with young priests and religious personnel to learn more about their faith. Being homeschooled and coming from a rural part of Alaska, Burke jokingly said he didn’t know that there were more than 10 other young Catholics in the world, so the conference offered healing and fellowship that he otherwise wouldn’t have found in Kenai.
“That [conference] sent me down the path of like, ‘okay, yes, I want to be a saint for a long time, but no, I don’t just want to do this out of some desire for heroism’ … This needs to be something more,” he said, noting that change only occurred through listening and observing the priests, seminarians, and religious people at the conference.
From that point on, Burke decided to live a prayer-filled life. And during his senior year, he said Father Leo Walsh, who was the vocations director for the former Archdiocese of Anchorage at the time, helped narrow down his options as to what God was calling him to do.
“I felt like I needed to stop looking at the pair of boots and try them on and see if they fit or not,” he said.
That same year, Burke chose to participate in a three-day college visit at St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He noted that it was a wonderful yet challenging experience.
St. Paul made Burke feel “super uncomfortable,” he said. He explained that city life did not suit him due to his untraditional upbringing and wilderness lifestyle. “But at the same time, I just had this overwhelming sense of peace and joy there even though it was completely unlike home in every conceivable way.”
By the end of his trip, Burke knew seminary is where God wanted him to be.
After graduating high school, Burke enrolled at St. John Vianney Seminary and graduated four years later in 2020. He then went on to major seminary at Mount Angel, where he is currently in his third year of school.
Burke is expected to be ordained a transitional deacon in 2024 by the Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau’s archbishop and then finish seminary in the spring of 2025. He is expected to be ordained a priest by the archbishop later that year.
Burke said he is uncertain where he will be assigned after seminary and his anticipated ordination. However, since he is a diocesan seminarian, his first pastoral assignment will be decided by the archbishop. If given the choice, he believes he is best suited for parishes and missions in rural Alaska.
“Whenever people ask me, short answer, ‘why do you want to be a priest or whatever?’ Because the two greatest loves of my life are Jesus and the people of Alaska, and as a priest, you get to bring Jesus to people and people to Jesus,” Burke said. “So, like, to me, that is the greatest thing I’m shooting for … being that bridge, bringing the grace of God into people’s everyday lives, and bringing people’s everyday lives, all their joys and sufferings, bring it up before the Lord in the Eucharist every day.”
For now, Burke patiently waits for his turn to become a priest, like the stories his mother shared in his youth, by faithfully serving the parishioners of St. Benedict Parish and the students of Lumen Christi.