Another familiar face has gone from Tarrawarra when Br Kevin Burke, one of the foundation group of this monastery, died on Easter Monday, 17 April. He was a real Dubliner, born in Clanbrassil St in The Liberties on New Year’s Day, 1916 and baptized Christopher, the third son of William and Jane Burke. It was a home poor in material goods, but rich in faith and, in later years, Br Kevin would reminisce about the good influence on him of seeing his father at his prayers. It perhaps wasn’t surprising, then, that a religious vocation should form in young Christopher’s heart. At the age of 17, he went off and joined the Cistercian Abbey of Mt St Joseph at Roscrea, becoming Br Kevin. He made his First Vows on 5 July 1936 and Solemn Vows on 5 July 1939.
During his early years in the monastery Br Kevin was nearly carried off in the typhoid epidemic which was in Ireland at the time, but recovered and settled down to life in the monastery. His work centred on the dairy and Br Kevin, who had probably never seen a cow until he entered the monastery, gathered wide experience and expertise in dairy operation. When the foundation in Australia was decided on, Br Kevin was one of those chosen to be in the first group and he arrived in his new country with seven other monks aboard the Esperance Bay on 31 October 1954.
Within a couple of weeks he had moved into the place which was to be his home for the remainder of his life. It wasn’t long before the community began to build up a dairy herd and, naturally, it was Br Kevin who worked at this. Indeed, for the next thirty years almost, Br Kevin and the dairy were practically synonymous. A part of early morning life at Tarrawarra through most of those years was the sound of his “OI” as he called in the cows for milking.
The first signs of deteriorating health carne when Br Kevin had to undergo a heart operation in 1982. He had already retired from dairy work but, once recovered from the operation, he remained active in the community and eventually moved into looking after the monastic refectory. And that was where you would usually find him in more recent years, setting tables and other tasks, but always ready for a good yarn or telling a few stories concerning his past exploits of various kinds: his stories never lost anything in the telling!
In fact, one of the most prominent characteristics of Br Kevin was his liveliness and optimism; remarkable, really, in one born into a family which would probably now be called deprived, and growing up in the grim years of the great Depression. But he was a Dubliner, and something of the toughness and vitality of that old city and its people became part of Br Kevin’s make-up and gave him the buoyancy and resilience which we came to know so well over the years.
It was those qualities in him which led him to build up a wide range of friends and acquaintances; many of them filled the abbey church for his funeral. Br Kevin’s end was as he would have wished it. He was up and about on Easter Sunday and, as always, prepared the refectory for the festive evening meal in which he joined with his usual enjoyment. Early on Easter Monday morning, he experienced great breathlessness and was taken immediately to Healesville Hospital. Once there, he declined rapidly and died about 4.00 am. The Abbot was with him and, after his death, Dom Kevin, Fr Mark, Fr Maxime and Br Celsus went into the hospital and celebrated the first Mass for him by his bedside. It was a great way to go. We really would love to hear Br Kevin telling the story of how he arrived at the pearly gates and St Peter advancing to welcome him crying, “KEVIN!”