By Roxanne King - Capuchin Fr. Blaine Burkey, archivist for the St. Conrad Province, marked 58 years of priesthood June 3 and his 84th birthday Nov. 30. Born and reared in Cumberland, Md., he entered a Capuchin-run seminary high school at age 13.
So how long has he been a Capuchin?
“I’ve really been a Capuchin all my life,” he said with a chuckle. “I was baptized by a Capuchin, grew up in a Capuchin parish, Capuchins taught religion in the grade school.
“I went away to seminary in Herman, Pa., and every teacher was a Capuchin. I really never had any thought of being anything else. I don’t regret that either.”
Fr. Blaine has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master’s degree in religious education. In his nearly six decades as a priest, he has served in Hays, Kan., St. Louis and Denver, ministering as a teacher of English and journalism, librarian, chaplain, in communications and as an archivist.
Fascinated by history and a diligent researcher, Fr. Blaine has written some 20 books primarily about places where he’s lived and notable people, ranging from General George Custer and Wild Bill Hickok, to St. Joseph and Denver’s Servant of God Julia Greeley.
He has received numerous honors for those efforts. This year, Thomas More Prep-Marian School in Hays, Kan., dedicated a site named the Fr. Blaine Burkey Learning Commons. Last year, the Denver Archdiocese gave him the Bakhita-Drexel Award for his book on Julia Greeley.
“Anywhere I’ve been, I’ve been interested in the local history, that’s how the Julia Greeley book began,” he said. “Most of the things I’ve written somebody else was collecting and preserving and I was able to use it.”
Fr. Blaine has written hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles, founded a couple of newsletters, including The Porter, and has written and/or edited others. He has also written much on his ancestral history. He has visited all but eight of the 50 states comprising our nation and 17 foreign countries, including Russia, Australia, Israel, Italy, Switzerland and Papua New Guinea.
“Sometimes it wasn’t for very long,” he said with a laugh.
His life as a friar primarily engaged with research has resulted in serendipitous encounters and unexpected adventures. Because of his persistence, he has managed to find materials difficult to access and to view sites he was told would be nearly impossible to see. For example, while at the Tower of London, he wanted to visit the chamber where St. Thomas More was imprisoned. A halperd-bearing Beefeater assured him he couldn’t because it was part of the queen’s apartment and he would have to have permission of the Warden of the Bell Tower. Fr. Blaine left, found a telephone book, called the warden’s number and was granted the desired permission.
“Sometimes you have to be pushy,” admitted Fr. Blaine. “I spent maybe an hour meditating in there. Then I had to find my own way out through the queen’s apartment!”
In the Holy Land, while at a Franciscan hostel for pilgrims, he befriended a fellow traveler who turned out to be a film producer-author who had stayed with the Capuchin friars on mission in Papua New Guinea and whose book Fr. Blaine had just read. The fellow was familiar with the area and one day led them to the Gaza Strip to see a Bedouin about getting some camel hair.
“That isn’t anything I would have planned to do,” Fr. Blaine said, describing his new friend waking sleeping Bedouins to haggle over the sought item, which he ultimately rejected. “I’m thinking, I hope we get out of here alive! But, I have very pleasant memories of those three days.”
Fr. Blaine has been involved with archives—records of lasting value—since early in his priesthood. He started the archives collection for the St. Conrad Province, which was established in 1977 when the Pennsylvania Province was split into two. When he arrived to Denver in 2006, he brought 400 boxes of material with him that he had collected.
“Somebody described [the job of archivist] as the keeper of the dream,” he said, chuckling. “To preserve the history and the material that’s needed to tell the history.”
A project of the archives is the early history of the Capuchins’ mission in Papua New Guinea, which started in 1955, the same year Fr. Blaine was invested into the order. Fr. Blaine collected letters sent back and forth between the province and the mission, preserving the history. He eventually turned that material into a book, Only the Beginnings, which is available online for free download: https://www.capuchins.org/documents/OnlyTheBeginnings.pdf.
While his varied ministry has been richly satisfying, what he has most enjoyed about his life as a Capuchin is the fraternity the friars live. St. Francis aimed to form a Gospel brotherhood of men who were little brothers (friars minor) not only to each other, but to all.
“A lot of great men have been my brothers,” Fr. Blaine said. “That’s our main charism to the Church. It made a big difference in Papua New Guinea. Every tribe was separate and they spent a lot of time quarreling with other tribes, fighting and in fear of what was going to happen.
“The Capuchins came in and brought friars from all over the world. … Now we have young men from all over the country who have joined us and are living as brothers, which has been Good News to people who were not used to living at peace with other people.”