Young Alaskan outdoorsman off to train for priesthood

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Add one more young man to the ranks of Alaskans studying for the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Anchorage.

Ed Burke left in late August for St. John Vianney College Seminary at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He will be a freshman studying philosophy.

Burke, 19, is the oldest of eleven siblings and the son of Toby and Laura Burke of rural Kenai. A product of life-long home-schooling, Burke is an avid Alaskan hunter and fisherman who once shot a caribou near Tok. He knows he has much discernment ahead of him.

“I don’t know where all this will end,” he said. “But God has an awesome plan for my life just as he does for everyone’s life. You can’t lose anything by trusting him.”

Burke said he’s been thinking about the priesthood “on and off since I was a little kid.”

But around the age of 15, after experiencing the Alaska Catholic Youth Conference and encountering many priests, religious and seminarians at that event, he began to feel a definite tug towards priesthood.

“And as I’ve gotten to know other Anchorage seminarians, they’ve been a huge encouragement,” he said.

Burke said the lives of the saints have always been an inspiration to him, and he is particularly devoted to Saint John Vianney.

“He was a simple country priest, he didn’t have amazing personal or intellectual gifts, but he poured his whole life into his work,” Burke noted.

Like his role model, Burke can envision himself as a country priest.

“Priests are always at the bishop’s disposal,” he said, “but my dream assignment would be to be a parish priest in a rural area. I’m an outdoorsman, and I love the people in rural areas. And that’s where the biggest priest shortage is.”

Burke was born in Alaska, but spent some of his childhood in the Lower 48. His father is an ornithologist who worked for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge but now does freelance work as a bird biologist. His mother’s background is also as a wildlife biologist.

Burke’s dad, Toby, was featured several years ago in an Catholic Anchor article after he fended off a brown bear attack when he, his wife and three of their children were visiting the beach at Kasilof after Mass one Sunday.

“It was a very, very old bear who was probably starving to death,” Ed Burke said. “It wasn’t acting like a healthy bear.”

His father first tried keeping the bear at bay with a tripod but later was forced to grapple with the animal with his bare hands until it gave up and left. Alaska State Troopers eventually killed it.

Burke said his mom had a baby in her backpack at the time and his other two siblings were around 10 or 12 years old. Although it must have been a terrifying confrontation, Burke said that by the time they got home his siblings “were all excited.” It made a great story which the other siblings are sorry they missed.

Living outside of Kenai, Burke said he doesn’t get to daily Mass as often as he’d like, but that is one aspect of the seminary he looks forward to. And Father Leo Walsh, who until recently served as director of vocations, encouraged him to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. He said that he prays that Christ will “change me and do what he wants with me.”

In addition to studying philosophy, Burke will probably choose a second major but is still undecided. He will be home next for a two-week Christmas visit, and then off to a seminary retreat before second semester begins.


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