Tribute: Mary Thomas Burke

Dr. Mary Thomas Burke (1928-2002)

photo of Dr. Mary Thomas BurkeDr. Mary Thomas Burke was born Annie Josephine Burke on November 28, 1928 in the seaport town of Westport in County Mayo, Ireland. When she was 17 her plans were to travel to Africa and begin studies to become a sister, but a visit to her hometown by the nuns from the Sisters of Mercy in Belmont drew her to North Carolina. She traveled from Ireland to New York by boat in 1948 and then by train to Belmont.
Her studies began at Sacred Heart convent and then a bachelor’s in sociology from Belmont Abbey College. She took her first vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and serving the needy in 1951 and her final vows three years later. She later received a master’s from Georgetown University and a PhD from UNC Chapel Hill.

Her career at UNC Charlotte began in 1970 when she founded and chaired their counseling program later designing its Ph.D. program. Sister Mary Thomas spent over 50 years working with drug addicts, AIDS patients, the impoverished, unwed pregnant teenagers, homeless mothers and abused women from the Charlotte area. 

She founded many organizations, including Open House, The Relatives and To Life. She was in leadership positions with the Metrolina AIDS Project and Catherine's House Out of all her numerous awards over her lifetime she was proudest of the prestigious Echo Foundation’s “Echo Award Against Indifference,” which was presented to her by Maya Angelou in 2002.

The Mu Tau Beta chapter of Chi Sigma Iota was founded at UNC Charlotte in 1990 by Phyllis Post, Ph.D. The chapter was named in her honor due to her work as a visionary and leader in counselor education.

Contributions & Accomplishments:

  • She was a teacher of children and young people from kindergarten thru college in all major subject areas
  • She was a consultant to educators, businesses, government, public service agencies, and private organizations
  • She was a committed volunteer in dozens of organizations covering a broad scope of needs in the community
  • She sensitively ministered to those of all ages, both individuals and groups
  • She worked to unite the secular and non-secular as she taught each one to form more genuine relationships
  • She worked to build bridges between races and different faiths
  • She demonstrated the richness of life’s alternatives to those whom her life touched
  • In her own words: “ What I hope I am giving people is the confidence to believe in themselves