A joint celebration earlier this month in Summit Hill underscored the fortune of Catholics having the services of a clergyman these days, when parishioners of St. Joseph Catholic Church in that community paused to recognize their pastor, the Rev. James Burdess.
The social, held after the traditional Saturday evening Mass, was held to celebrate Father Burdess' 22nd anniversary in the priesthood. It also was a time to note the closing of the "Year for Priests," as had been proclaimed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The timing also coincided with the pastor's fifth year in Summit Hill, during which time the town's two Catholic churches consolidated, while a difficult economy continues to hamper the church's operations, as well as the parish school.
Those difficulties notwithstanding, parishioners and their pastor offered a positive spin on the parish family and its leader. "Fr. Burdess is a breath of fresh air," said longtime church member Jim McHugh. "He's spiritual and gracious, and is easily-approachable. He's open to conversation on all different aspects of running a parish."
Not that it has been easy, the priest noted, saying, "Being assigned to Summit Hill for five years now, it has had its ups and downs as most people find, but my time here has been a most enjoyable period of my life. The people have been great - generous with their time, talents and treasure. My two other assignments as a pastor were about the same in many regards, but working here in Summit Hill has been one with a lot less controversy and a lot more cooperation, especially in regards to our annual festival (July 16-18)."
McHugh said Fr. Burdess' biggest challenge in making sure the parish "stays within our financial means, which is not as easy as maybe in the large cities." Finances aside, the parishioner said, the life of the parish is strong in the aftermath of a merger in which St. Joe's assumed the membership of its sister parish, St. Stanislaus, during the diocese's consolidation of parishes.
Under Fr. Burdess' leadership, the new parish family, McHugh noted, can be an example for others. "We don't have any dissention, compared to some of the churches," he said. "Our transition was as if we were getting married and starting a new life."
Parishioner Barbara Shelton was quick to point out, "We're happy to have any priest in this day and age, but Father Burdess is one of a kind. He's very helpful, and doesn't think twice to lend a hand. He's not afraid to get his hands dirty. Anything that goes on in the church, he helps. He's not just an overseer."
Burdess merely says he is "content with the knowledge that I believe that I am following the vocation that the Lord has called me to." But, in this day and age, the services of a limited amount of priests present a great demand for his time. Fr. Burdess noted, "Two weekends ago made me more than aware that I am pulled in so many directions, especially on weekends. Last Saturday, I had a baptism, a burial in the cemetery, and presided at a wedding anniversary celebration, all before noon. Also, somehow I was prepared for the Sunday Mass at 4 p.m. and the Sunday morning masses, with our parish breakfast and dedication of the social hall kitchen. Canon Law allows for a priest to celebrate one liturgy per day with the possibility of a second when necessary - it isn't unusual for me to have 12 to 14 per week."
That kind of dedication is demanding, but appreciated, said parishioner Joseph O'Gurek, who said, "He's very dedicated to his priestly life, our church, the local Catholic schools and his family." O'Gurek said, "We were preparing for the monthly breakfast, he was there lending a hand as usual, but had to leave because that same morning, he had a burial, a baptism, and an anniversary Mass, not to mention afternoon confessions and the 4 p.m. Mass. Not too many people would want that kind of schedule."
Parish couple George and Maria Stianche also marvel about the priest's commitment to Catholic education, specifically Our Lady of the Angels Academy and Marian High School. Regarding the grade school, George said, "He (Fr. Burdess) is very supportive. He doesn't miss a meeting and takes and makes the time to be there. His heart is in this thing. He's really sincere and he's out for the people."
To which Maria added, "We love him. He's great."
The parish's choir and music director, Bob Ames, said Fr. Burdess "is very involved in the music of the church." He added, "He has a unique way of integrating hymns with sermons in that he finds a hymn to go with the theme of his messages. He's been very supportive of the music ministry. The quality of using hymns with sermons is a standout thing."
Ames is equally impressed with the pastor's sense of comfort of troubled families. "I can tell you personally, he's excellent about going to the hospital to visit the sick. He takes his responsibilities very well, making sure to visit the sick and console family members of the deceased."
While the recent celebration was a time to look back at the parish life, Fr. Burdess offered his perspective on what's ahead, saying, "I am unsure where things will be going in the future, but I rely on the Lord to take care of things. I pray that those who are called to the priesthood will respond positively to that call. I truly believe that God is indeed calling and many are not listening due to so many distractions in our modern hectic world. I believe that we are called to a specific state in life and will only truly find fulfillment by following that calling."
About the pastor
Fr. Jim Burdess was born in Pottsville in 1958. He lived in Pottsville and attended St. Patrick School until after seventh grade, when the family moved to St. Clair. Father attended eighth grade at St. Mary School in St. Clair. He graduated from Nativity B.V.M. High School, Pottsville, and obtained a bachelor of science degree in accounting from Penn State University.
He prepared for the priesthood at Mary Immaculate Seminary, Northampton, where he earned master's degrees in divinity and theology. The Most Rev. Thomas J. Welsh, then the Bishop of Allentown ordained Father Burdess to the priesthood at the Cathedral of Saint Catharine of Siena, Allentown, on June 4, 1988.
Father's first assignment as a new priest was as assistant pastor at Sacred Heart Church, Allentown. He was later an assistant at St. Peter Church, Coplay, and St. Joseph the Worker Church, Orefield.
He was first appointed pastor at SS. Peter and Paul Church, Tower City. He has also been pastor at Immaculate Conception Church, Tremont, and St. Nicholas Church, Weatherly. Since June 14, 2005, he has been assigned to Summit Hill. He was pastor of both St. Joseph and St. Stanislaus churches until St. Stanislaus was consolidated into St. Joseph Church in 2008. He remains pastor of St. Joseph Church today.
Father Burdess has also served as an advocate at the Diocesan Tribunal, a member of the Diocesan Ecumenical Commission and as a member of the Marian Catholic High School Advisory Board.