Sister Marie Rene Burns, MM

Born: May 15, 1895
Entered: February 1, 1922
Died: June 9, 1987

Sister Marie Rene Burns, who would have been 92 this August, slipped quietly into the arms of God about 5:30 P.M. on Tuesday, June 9, in the Maryknoll Nursing Home. The afternoon before she had been present with the other Nursing Home residents for a party to celebrate Sr. Miriam Dolores Latham’s 97th birthday, joining in the ‘Sing Along’ as well as she could. Sister loved to sing, so it is most fitting that Psalm 98 be part of today’s Liturgy as we join our voices with hers to “Sing a New Song to the Lord, for He Has Done Marvelous Deeds.”

Miriam Loyola Helen Burns was born to Edward and Mary O’Callaghan Burns on August 15, 1895 in New York City. A sister, Theresa, and 3 brothers, Edward, Jr., Ignatius and Paul, who became a diocesan priest, made up the family of 7. After eight years of grammar school, Miriam went on to finish the high school course in 3½ years. She was offered a partial scholarship to Ursuline College in New Rochelle, New York, but was unable to accept this because of financial considerations. An avid reader and researcher, with an aptitude for languages, Miriam did private studies in literature and engaged in tutoring students in Latin. A 3-month business course enhanced her secretarial skills and she did clerical work for 9 years, employed by the Metropolitan Life and OKeh Record Companies.

Miriam entered Maryknoll in 1922 when she was 26. After postulancy at the Venard, she received the religious name “Sister Marie Rene” at the formal reception ceremony held on the old compound at Maryknoll. All talents were called on from the members of the young Congregation and Sister found herself over the next five years working in a variety of jobs including the Library, The Field Afar Office in research and also development of the Junior Department, as well as in the Promotion Department, writing special letters, doing electroplating, china painting and as diarist. After First Profession of Vows in 1924 Sister taught English and Catechism to the postulants.

A mission in Malabon, the Philippines, was begun in 1926, where a normal school was opened along with a grade and high school. Sister Rene was delighted to be assigned there a year later after her Final Profession to do teaching and secretarial work. Conditions were difficult. The group of 12 Sisters faced many challenges, endured many hardships and suffered from frequent illnesses. Despite these factors, Sister Rene’s observant, outgoing manner and enthusiasm for her ministry brought her the joy of new discoveries and relationships. One of her extracurricular activities was to mend rosaries. The students, who loved to be around Sister, would break their rosaries on purpose in order to have an excuse to go to her. One can only imagine their regret, as well as Sister Rene’s, when it was decided that she must return to the U.S. because of illness, in 1929. The return was delayed when the ship she and another Sister had boarded in Manila was wrecked on the rocks a short distance from the port. A salvage vessel was sent and they returned to wait three months for passage back to the States.

Illness plagued the rest of Sister’s 58 years spent at the Motherhouse and Crichton House, and in 1976 Sister Rene was admitted to Bethany and later transferred to the Nursing Home at the Center. But in the intervening years, despite poor health, Sister devoted her prayers and various works to the cause of mission with determination and the conviction that her efforts benefited those far beyond her geographical limits. Many remember her as Motherhouse diarist, mimeograph operator and typist, but most remember her for her free time activity: keeping the mission houses supplied with recreational reading, mostly “Dollar Detective Stories.” Such was her zeal for this project, she reviewed all the books, often removing pages and words she considered inappropriate for her Sisters to read, sometimes jotting the reasons for this in the margins, and wrote a brief critique on the title page. One reader remarked that sometimes the biggest mystery in the book was keeping tract of the plot because of the deletions. Sister Rene’s detective stories can still be found in many Maryknoll houses. Later on, when 35 mm films were shown periodically at the Motherhouse, Sister’s reviewing talents were applied to the movies.

In 1966 Sister Rene was able to accompany 2 Sister-students on a most memorable trip to Ireland and Lourdes. This first experience in an airplane and traveling in Europe, especially to the Shrine of Our Lady, is described in detail in 14 typewritten pages, reminiscent of Sister’s famous Motherhouse News-Sheet.

By the late 1970s, illness caused the need for skilled nursing care. Sister was able to move herself about in a wheelchair until recently, but eventually was unable to articulate much. Music seemed to be her preferred mode of communication. A Sister related what she called a “lovely moment” witnessed a few months ago in the Nursing Home Chapel: Sister Rene had positioned her wheelchair facing the altar. In a “high, sweet, gentle voice” she was singing “Whispering Hope” to God and a very appreciative audience of patients.

Today we celebrate in community that hope and promise in the Resurrection. We express our sympathy to Sister Rene’s family, and to all of Sister’s friends in the U.S. and the Philippines. We welcome Father John J. Corcoran of Maryknoll who will lead us in this Eucharistic Liturgy of thanksgiving and remembrance.