Sister Kay Burton, SNJM

Sister Gordon Mary

November 3, 1936 – March 18, 2022

Sister Kay Burton, SNJM departed this life on March 18, 2022 in Spokane, Washington.

Sister Kay celebrated 85 years of life and 60 years of religious profession.

Mass of Resurrection was celebrated on Saturday, March 26, 2022, at 10:00 a.m. at St. Joseph Church, 138 S River Street, Rockford, Washington.

Burial took place at Holy Cross Cemetery, Spokane, Washington.

Homily for Sister Kay
March 26, 2022, by Mary Ellen Robinson, SNJM

I was in need, and you responded. Responded with love. That’s what Sister Kay Burton did her whole life:  She put love into action, right where it was needed most.

How do we thank and honor God for the gift of her as we prepare to gently surrender her body to the earth?

Kay was a woman of a huge heart, few words, and a practical preference for action.  When she spoke, people listened. As Proverbs says: “When she opened her mouth, she did so wisely.” Last November, when her parish gave her a surprise 85th birthday party, she said, “I have thyroid cancer, and my voice doesn’t work so well, but my heart works perfectly well, and it is filled with love for all of you.” She would say that to us here now: My heart is filled with love for all of you.

Such love calls forth the best from others.

Whether she was teaching at Immaculate High School in Seattle, or in Mississippi, or in Vietnam… Whether she was working with volunteers, Girls to Women II, or English language learners…

She could give challenging assignments, about justice and injustice, the environment, dark and light parts of American history. She could show students how to get information, analyze, put together, and present. Or how to build a bookcase or a bench. Then she could expect the learners to do it. Her love knew that people of all ages rise to a good challenge.

In the Gospel, we hear the call and the gratitude of Jesus. You gave me what I needed.

For my hunger: bread. For my thirst: water. Kay knew about water! She was a prophet about all aspects of care for our earth. She thought big, she thought ahead, she cared and she taught everyone around her to care – without preaching.

To strangers Kay gave welcome. How many volunteers from out of town have stayed with her and worked with her over the years? Or who could count the number of times the door to Kay’s house and heart opened in welcome?  Day after day.  Up to the very last days that she was in Jonestown.  But of course, by then, no one was a stranger.

I was sick, and you cared for me. Tenderness, kindness, compassion, thoughtful practicality, initiative, thoroughness… these marked Kay’s way of caring, when, for example, Sister Teresa had her … terrible time.

About qualities like kindness and gentleness, Kay was quietly and firmly passionate.  A high school volunteer from St Mary’s Academy in Portland remembers seeing this on Kay’s refrigerator: “Be kinder than necessary.” I remember Kay insisting on including gentleness in our Washington Province mission statement even if it was not in any of our founding documents.

That same St. Mary’s student wrote: “Sister Kay and the Jonestown community taught us to slow down and prioritize each other. …The warmth of God’s Love rivets through the Jonestown soul with vibrancy.”

I was lonely, the gospel suggests. How Kay visited and invited! She nurtured people. One such lonely one remembers: Anytime I visited Kay, she would take me out to the garden. She was just so tickled, almost like a child, to share what was happening there.

Yes, Kay nurtured She nurtured plants, and she nurtured people. She farmed. She gardened. And it wasn’t only the plants that grew.

Volunteer ministry in Jonestown was amazingly varied.  Kay practiced pluriculture. She grew a lot of different things.

Georgia Yianakulis remembers from the early years how Kay had so many good things going on. “One day she had me baking a pecan pie with pecans from a tree in the yard, while she supervised a girls’ baseball game outside. Another time she encouraged me to tutor a little boy who had come for help. Some days a woman came to the house to give piano lessons (or if the woman didn’t come, the older children might teach the younger ones.)

“Kay had me pruning trees one day,” said S. Georgia, “which impressed an elderly man walking by. That man was skeptical of Kay and her activities but I heard he eventually changed his mind.”

“Another day,” Georgia said, “we took a few of the older children to a symphony concert in Memphis.  Ahead of time she had prepared the girls for what they would hear and how people comported themselves at such an event. The girls were super concert-goers and enjoyed the outing.”

Sister Kay was profoundly prayerful. She kept that part of her deep inner life mostly private, except for things like praying the rosary with anyone who wanted to walk with her or letting us know she was offering a morning push-up for us. Mornings in Jonestown, first thing, she would stop by the statue of Mother Marie Rose in her hallway to dedicate her new day and to ask for the grace to be the best Holy Names Sister, and the best Burton, she could possibly be.  Who could say no to that?

Today’s first reading says: On her tongue is kindly instruction.

Kay practiced creating pathways, physical, mental, and emotional, for people to grow into their potential, people of all ages. For example: She would find or create grants (sometimes with the help of loyal donors,) so her Jonestown girls (and boys) could experience the whole process of making positive changes in their community, from first idea, first dream, to the completion of sometimes amazing projects.  Examples: the field and track; the Spot of Serenity; the basketball and tennis courts; the community garden; Peace vigils; plays and programs spaced throughout the year; summer school programs the older students learned how to plan and direct.

What we practice we get good at. Kay became a masterful servant leader.

I assume she got her first practice with her nine brothers, for whom she said, her heart was always “yes.”

By the time she was Provincial of the Washington Province, she was really good at it. Sometime in there she asked S. Agnes Ly, who had come to us as a refugee from the war in Vietnam, if there might be a need for our Holy Names Charism in Vietnam. Yes!  So for two summers, S. Kay and S. Ly visited the missions and the leaders of the Lovers of the Holy Cross.  Just as she had done at Immaculate High School and in Mississippi, Kay saw. She saw with love, compassion and practicality, she saw with her eyes, her mind and her heart. She saw orphans and handicapped children being lovingly cared for. She saw families who lived in the mountains and couldn’t afford to send their children to school. She saw how Sisters poured themselves out caring for little ones who otherwise would have been hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless. She saw pregnant teens and elders who needed help. She and S. Agnes Le developed plans. They worked with the congregational and province leaders in the respective communities. Their plans were based on a unique collaboration: Holy Names Sisters would send volunteers to Vietnam to teach English for a few weeks each summer, especially to the Sisters and their candidates, and we would raise money for the missionary work among the very poorest people, especially to fund scholarships for children and youth. We would share one mission. Thus was born the Call to Vietnam. Kay herself went at least 14 times, and several times she brought a student volunteer from Jonestown with her. She was so proud of that. How would Kay do all this? She would get summer programs started in Jonestown, then leave for two weeks or a month in Vietnam! She was in her 70s and early 80s doing this.

Two Sisters from Vietnam are with us today. Sponsored by Holy Names Sisters, they have earned master’s degrees at Heritage University. They will soon return to Vietnam fully able to plan with and receive English volunteers from anywhere in the English-speaking world. Above all, they will teach and administer excellent programs for countless future students. Meanwhile, scholarships must continue, for students to complete their education, all the way through college if they persevere.

Neither Durocher Volunteer Service program nor Call to Vietnam were separately incorporated during Kay’s life. Kay wanted these missions firmly imbedded into who we are, what we do, and how we do it as Sisters of the Holy Names.  Now the main programs in Jonestown have been entrusted into the care of some of its own members, young women who have been part of a community of service and learning since they were very young, at least one of them since pre-school.  For Jonestown and for Vietnam, Kay is trusting US, together, to carry on her legacy of service, learning and community.

Now, together, we are called to see the needs, and to respond: to put love into action.

Eulogy for Sister Kay
March 26, 2022, by Teresa Shields, SNJM

Valiant woman, sister, aunt, friend, mentor, leader, principal, athlete, engineer, gardener, prayer, Holy Names Sister, teacher – Kay was a lover!

Kay loved her brothers. We attended a workshop in Memphis a few years ago and the facilitator asked if we were “yes” people or “no” people. I said I was a yes person, which gets me in trouble sometimes. Kay said she was usually a no person, but for her brothers, it was ALWAYS yes.

Kay loved her garden. She didn’t just admire flowers and vegetables, she planted, weeded, roto-tilled, picked, harvested. She even convinced the Jonestown town leaders to provide water for the large garden outside of town.

Kay loved music. Any time I came into her house, classical music was playing. She took many young people to symphonies in Helena and Memphis. She always had at least one piano and provided music lessons for all the years she was in Jonestown. I’m so happy that one of her former students will now provide music lessons to the children of Jonestown.

Kay loved volunteers. Her house was “Durocher Service Development Volunteer Program.” I personally know several of the Holy Names Seattle volunteers whose lives were forever changed by their 4 weeks in the summer.

Kay loved people, especially women and children. Her heart was big enough for all. One day when she was out someone came in and stole a computer from her bedroom. One of our friends said to her, “How could they do that? Everyone loves you!” She replied that probably the thief loved her too, but needed some money.

Kay loved Immaculate High School in Seattle. She taught and was principal there for many years.  She, with the staff, created a Peace and multi-cultural education curriculum. When she resigned, she asked the Holy Names Leadership if she could research other Catholic high schools around the country to see if they had something similar. She took Greyhound all around the country. When she got to Chicago and told one of the other principals her idea, the Sister said to her, “Oh, you’ve got to go to Clarksdale!”

The next year, 1979, she came to Immaculate Conception – IC – and taught for two years, including two students from Jonestown.

And that’s why Sister Kay, as our Province Director, sent 4 SNJMs to Jonestown in 1984.

When Kay had an idea, it was never a flight of fancy or a “maybe we should.” It was always “I’ll figure out how to make it work.” The dining room table in her house quickly became too small, so she read a carpentry book on how to make leaves for the table. From that project grew her whole carpentry room with power saws and drills. There are many bookcases in Jonestown because of that program.

Kay was an athlete. She was the softball coach for many years. Her idea to create a track and field behind the old grade school in Jonestown came to pass through a lot of hard work, including sawing the ivy branches off the trees. I think I lasted about 15 minutes when I offered to help. It is still being used. Kay was also responsible for upgrading the town’s tennis courts and basketball court.

Four of us from Washington State drove to Jonestown from Seattle in 1982 to teach in the Immaculate Conception Summer School. We visited the family that she had taught at IC and they were so welcoming and eager for us to come and stay.

Kay loved being a host. She hosted the Thanksgiving dinner for all the area’s sisters and volunteers for years. And she insisted on making the mashed potatoes and Mrs. Burton’s gravy. She loved hosting Sisters, volunteers, and friends. She never tried to be the center of attention or the “life of the party.”

The greatest honor of my life was to be invited by Kay to be among the 1st 4 Holy Names Sisters to come to Jonestown.

She mentored me in her quiet way, mostly without words.

My favorite image of Kay is “like a tree planted by the running water, she shall not be moved.” Well done, good and faithful servant.

Sister Kay Burton, SNJM

Sister Gordon Mary

November 3, 1936 – March 18, 2022

Sister Kay was born Frances Catherine (Kay) Burton on November 3, 1936, in Santa Monica, California to Gordon and Marie Burton while Gordon was employed by Douglas Aircraft to work on experimental airplanes. The family moved to Issaquah, Washington, in 1942 when Gordon began work as a government inspector on airplanes in Renton. They lived there for less than a year when the family moved to Rockford, Washington, where Kay had fond memories of living on the Saunders place. In 1948, the family moved to Lake Creek, Idaho, into the farmhouse where Gordon had been raised and that is still standing today.

In 1954, Kay graduated from Rockford High School as Valedictorian. She enrolled in Holy Names College, Spokane, graduating in 1958 with a degree in Education and began her teaching career at Deer Park High School. In January 1960, after a year and a half teaching in public schools, Kay entered the novitiate of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary at Marylhurst, Oregon receiving the religious name Sister Gordon Mary. She pronounced first vows on February 5, 1962.

Sister Kay spent years developing peace-education programs and anti-racism curricula as an inner-city teacher and administrator in Seattle. She traveled to Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1978 to teach at Immaculate Conception School and earned a M.Ed. in Counseling and Guidance from Western Michigan University in 1979. After returning to Spokane from 1983-87 to assume a leadership role as Provincial Director of her SNJM community, Sister Kay returned to Mississippi. She bought a house which she immediately remodeled into appropriate space for tutoring. She reached out to the Jonestown community to find out what people wanted. As a result, Sister Kay established GED programs, garden projects, softball teams, and life skills classes for the people of Jonestown. Music was important to her and became a major emphasis. She encouraged instructors to come to Jonestown to teach music. The result was joyful singing at annual Christmas celebrations and Black history presentations, as well as piano recitals and other wonderful gatherings.

Her successful volunteer recruitment campaigns led to innumerable home repair and Habitat for Humanity projects benefiting the residents of Jonestown. Volunteers created a playground for younger children and helped upgrade basketball, baseball, and track facilities. Sister Kay provided enrichment opportunities to the young people of Jonestown by organizing field trips and driving students to meet Sisters and others involved in service work. These ranged from travels to the Native American Community in Wapato, Washington, to Holy Names Convents in Lesotho, Africa.

Sister Kay also helped found The Call to Vietnam Program which sent Sisters of the Holy Names and volunteers to teach English language skills to the young Lovers of the Holy Cross Sisters in Hue, Vietnam.

Sister Kay’s career spanned a lifetime of giving to those in need. Her primary focus was children. Her gifts as a teacher, administrator, volunteer, advocate, innovator, gardener, and counselor touched the lives of the thousands of people she served. The people of Jonestown, Mississippi, will never forget Sister Kay and the impact she had during the thirty-plus years of her ministry there.

Sister Kay Burton, SNJM, died March 18, 2022, in Spokane, Washington, at Hospice House of Spokane. There must have been a joyous greeting in Heaven that morning as her mom and dad along with brothers Dick, Bill, Jim, and Ira met Kay on her journey to everlasting life.

Sister Kay is survived her five brothers: John, Tom, Don, Bob and Steve and generations of nieces and nephews who knew and loved their Aunt Kay. She will be sorely missed. Sister Kay is also survived by members of her religious community the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.