Neil Burke entered Wartburg assisted living facility in his electronic wheelchair, a sports book bag hanging from the handlebars behind him. He was there to attend Mass, as he often does during his visits.
Burke, a young man of 24, has cerebral palsy and is legally blind. He has limited use of his limbs, and speaks with a slight speech impediment. Those details quickly fade into the background once one begins a conversation with him. He speaks articulately and with honesty.
“Being that I couldn’t get a normal job, I had to find a different path,” he told CNY in an interview that took place in the lobby of Wartburg in Mount Vernon on a bright August day.
The call to be of service to others was one Burke had felt since his 2007 graduation from Henry Viscardi School in Albertson, Long Island. “I wanted to find some way to give back to the community,” he said.
He tried attending college—both online and on campus—but found that his legal blindness made it difficult for him to read the course materials.
“I feel that we are all put on this earth for a mission. It’s a different mission for everyone. This was a special mission God has put me on,” he said with a joyfully determined look in his eyes.
Burke now volunteers an average of three times each week with the Dominican Sisters of Hope. He is one of 17 Dominican Associates, and the second male to join. “Because I’m doing this, I finally feel like I have found my calling,” he said with a smile.
“Most people in their 20s are still trying to figure out who they are and what their calling is,” he added.
Part of his service involves praying for those with special intentions, which the sisters have received.
“Neil’s phenomenal deep listening and memory had him asking for updates on those I had asked him to pray for weeks before,” said Sister Connie Koch, O.P.
Burke has used his talents, including his remarkable memory, to conduct interview of sisters that are recorded for inclusion in the archives of the Dominican Sisters of Hope. He said he asks each sister about her call to religious life, as well as other related questions.
He is not shy, and he is not one to hide his faith—he wears a large wooden cross around his neck, a gift from New York City Police Detective Steven McDonald which Burke received after he returned from a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, in 2010. Detective McDonald, who was shot in the line of duty in 1986, is now a quadriplegic. (Burke also visited Lourdes last year.)
Burke became a Dominican Associate last spring. During the Mass at which he was received, Sister Connie called Burke a gift to others, including many of her fellow Dominican Sisters of Hope.
“In his seeking Jesus, Neil has been found by Jesus and has led many of us to Jesus,” said Sister Connie, who regularly brings the Eucharist to Burke at his family’s home in Mount Vernon, where he lives with his mother and brother.
“Seeking Jesus and being found by Jesus now called forth from him his loving response to serve others—to minister to those in need,” she told CNY.
She said that Burke told her, “God gave me a mind and a voice and I must use them for God and God’s people.”
Burke’s relationship with the Sisters of Hope goes back to before he was confirmed in 2006. At the Confirmation Mass for Persons with Disabilities in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he received the sacrament from Cardinal Egan.
Sister Jorene Cieciuch, O.P., was the first of the sisters that Burke interviewed for his volunteer project. She was also the one to teach Burke about the Dominican Sisters of Hope and their charism and mission in his quest to become an associate. The two have studied the Bible together. Sharing the Scriptures with Burke has been a journey of faith for both of them, she said.
“I’m so happy to have Neil join in with me,” she said. “We share the Scriptures almost every day.”
The unlikely friendship between the two is one of great mutual admiration. Sister Jorene told CNY, “Neil definitely exudes joy, he has a good sense of humor and he has a keen memory and love for the Scriptures, which are all aspects that young people can benefit from. They are part of who he is, and what he believes.”
In discussing faith and hope, Burke said, “I heard something from one of the sisters in their remarks. I forget what the Gospel reading was about that day, but this sister said our prayers to God will almost always be answered.
“It may not be in the timing or the context that we want, but somehow our prayers will be answered.”