There is much to be grateful for because of the life of Sister Kay Burton. Sister Kay died on March 18, surrounded by the prayers of her Holy Names Sisters and the countless friends she made during more than three decades of ministry in the Mississippi Delta.
Near the end of her life, Sister Kay realized she’d have to leave Jonestown, Mississippi to return to Washington state, where she was lovingly cared for by family members and the Sisters in her last days. But Jonestown never stopped being home to her. It’s the place where she lived, loved, taught and built beginning in the late 1970s. Before her departure, Sister Kay visited with residents of Jonestown so they could say goodbye and thank her for her transformative work with children, teens, families and the town itself.
“Sister Kay loved being in Jonestown with the local people,” said Sister Maureen Delaney, leader of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary U.S.-Ontario Province. “She loved developing enriching programs with and for the children, teens and families, and they in turn enriched her life with their love and friendship.”
Sister Kay first came to the Delta in 1979 to teach summer school at Immaculate Conception in Clarksdale. She, along with several other Sisters of the Holy Names from the West Coast, came to love the warmth and dedication to community among the people they met. During the couple of years that Sister Kay stayed in Clarksdale, she got to know the family of a student from Jonestown. The child’s family urged her to come to Jonestown to help students there who were struggling with their lessons.
It was a perfect match for Sister Kay’s energetic and visionary talents. She had already spent years developing peace education and anti-racism programs as an inner-city teacher and administrator in Seattle, Washington. However, her Holy Names community called her to a leadership role in 1983, and that five-year commitment had to come first. But she purchased a house in Jonestown and continued to support the ministries of the other Sisters who went to Mississippi to teach — including Sisters Rose Monica Rabdau, Mildred Hein, Anne Skok and Teresa Shields.
“I will be forever grateful that Sister Kay chose me to live and minister in Jonestown for 32 years,” said Sister Teresa. “My life has been changed for the better.”
As soon as her term in leadership ended, Sister Kay drove to Mississippi in a van named “Old Yeller,” bought a second house and immediately started remodeling it to make appropriate space for tutoring. She reached out to the community to find out what people wanted, which led her to organize garden projects, softball teams, life skills classes and GED programs. A major emphasis for her was music — despite not being a musician herself, she recruited others to come to Jonestown to teach music, including Dolores Fields Mason, who passed away earlier this month. 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 to benefit Jonestown residents. Volunteers also helped upgrade facilities for basketball, baseball and track, as well as creating a playground for younger children. Sister Kay also took young people from Jonestown on trips to meet Sisters and other people involved in service work in places ranging from the Native American community in Wapato, Washington to the Holy Names convents in Lesotho, Africa.
As difficult as it was for Sister Kay to say goodbye to a place she loved so dearly, she knew that God’s faithful presence in the Mississippi Delta would continue through the many ministries she and the other Sisters brought to reality.
Memorial gifts may be made to Sisters of the Holy Names Ministry Fund, PO Box 398, Marylhurst, OR, 97036 or online here.