A Celibate Celebrity: Father Alfred Burke

The following is an excerpt from our recently published book Singular Vision: The Founding of the Catholic Church Extension Society of Canada, 1908 to 1915. A prominent figure in the story, and in Canadian-Catholic history, is Fr. Alfred Burke. Author Michael Power offers a colourful portrait of a man who served as a key figure in the development of Canada’s key Catholic institution.

Portrait of Fr. Alfred Burke (Catholic Missions of Canada)

Portrait of Fr. Alfred Burke (Catholic Missions of Canada)

“At first glance, Father Alfred Edward Burke may appear to be a most unlikely choice to conduct the daily administration of a new organization intended to harness the missionary spirit of Catholics everywhere in Canada. Up until he became the first president of Church Extension, Burke had risen no higher in the Church than pastor of a rural parish in his home diocese of Charlottetown, after twenty-three years in the priesthood. But what he lacked in clerical status and achievement, aside from his honorary doctorate in theology in 1908, he made up for with high-profile memberships in a number of associations and movements and with a well-honed reputation for imaginative ideas that stretched far beyond his home province of Prince Edward Island and preceded him everywhere on his visits throughout the country. People inside and outside the Church took note of him.

Father Burke was a peripatetic priest, a celibate celebrity who took seriously – and sometimes too seriously – his Catholic churchmanship and his Dominion citizenship, managing to combine these two aspects of his public career in a unified persona during his presidency of Church Extension. He was ambitious and energetic, a superb organizer and a man whose Roman collar was often sufficient to persuade wealthy Catholics to part with their money for the cause of Church Extension. Father Burke was a gifted public speaker and a flinty debater prone to controversy and mockery of his opponents. In him were the elements of the politician and the journalist. If he had not been a Catholic priest, he would have been a natural for the House of Commons.”

– Singular Vision: The Founding of the Catholic Church Extension Society of Canada, 1908 to 1915 by Michael Power. © Novalis Publishing Inc., 2013.

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