Neil with Sister Jorene Cieciuch (left) and Sister Connie Koch (right)

My path to becoming an Associate has been a long and winding road.

After graduating high school in June 2007, I briefly attended courses at a community college but soon realized that was not the path I was to follow. (I have Cerebral Palsy, which limits my ability to do everyday tasks including reading print; I have visual processing difficulties which renders me legally blind.) For a while after leaving college, I was home most of the time. I always knew I wanted to minister to the less fortunate throughout my community in any way I could. The only crucial question was how to do this with my disability.

The parish that I had gone to when I was younger was not handicapped accessible, and being confined to a wheelchair meant that attending services was really difficult for me and my family. However, I always knew I wanted to come back to the community of faith in some way. Sometimes, however, prayers and perseverance take years to shape into a reality.

My path back to the faith began in 2006, when my mother’s friend, Ed, began bringing me communion at home. During one visit, he brought up the possibility of me being confirmed. I saw this as an opportunity to enjoy the Eucharist during the services of a mass again; I felt as if this was the call back to rekindle my faith.

I was invited to be confirmed at a mass for the handicapped celebrated by the late Cardinal Egan at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I received the necessary instruction for being confirmed by a friend of Ed’s, Dominican Sister of Hope Connie Koch, OP. She eventually became my spiritual director. She also got me in touch with an adult care community in Mount Vernon (the Wartburg), where I first met the larger community of the Dominican Sisters of Hope.

I loved to be with the sisters because they brought something special to my life, and I felt that I brought something to their lives, too. In the past, I knew what I wanted to do, but I did not have a concrete goal in mind. The sisters provided that for me.

Neil with Sister Jorene c/o Catholic New York

Over the next few years, I had a series of formative experiences with my faith. In April of 2008, I met Pope Benedict when he said a Mass for the handicapped at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, NY. In 2010, I became involved with the American Special Children’s Pilgrimage Group and made the trip to Loudres with eight other pilgrims. In 2012, I returned to Lourdes again.

I loved all of these experiences, but they were only preparing me for what was to come in what would be my eventual ministry. Throughout all this time, I remained in touch with Sister Connie Koch, the sister who had helped me with my confirmation. One day, Sister Connie told me about the Wartburg, and how retired sisters were just starting to move into the facility. She said that Pastor Carol Friar, an administrator at the Wartburg, wanted to have an oral history of the Dominican Sisters of Hope and their background. Sister Connie invited me to meet Pastor Friar and a few other coordinators.

I was assigned the task of interviewing the sisters for the oral history portion of the project. My compilation of oral histories exposed me to the lives of these women who dedicated their lives to serving the community and the people within it. I became very close with many of the sisters, one of them being Dominican Sister of Hope Jorene Cieciuch, OP, my colleague and friend.

In turn, after interviewing the sisters, Sister Jorene, who had been the novice mistress many years before, asked me to come aboard as an Associate of their Dominican community– an assignment I was excited to accept. I felt like it would be an opportunity to be able to serve not only the Sisters I already work with, but the entire Dominican community, as well.

Sister Jorene and I met before services for several months to study the history of the Dominican Order and to examine the Dominican Order’s charism. On April 26th, 2013, four days after my twenty-fourth birthday, I was made an Associate of the Dominican Sisters of Hope. After all the months of preparation, I felt pleased to earn the title of Associate; it was the best gift I could have asked for.

As an Associate, one of my main assignments is to frequently check the community email to keep up on who needs prayers, outreach, or other intentions. Unfortunately, at times, I also need to pray for those we lose within the community. Prayer is very important for me to begin with, so I feel grateful when I’m able to pray for others in the community when they need support.

In addition, I also attend to the Wartburg Assisted Living facility three times a week to visit with the sisters, attend prayer services or Mass, and be a consistent presence in their lives. With many sisters being elderly, they can know that I will continue to be in their lives as they age, and I’m happy to show them how much I care about them every time I visit. Through visiting with the sisters and being updated through email, I intimately know what is happening in the community, and I do what I can to support it.

This past April marked two years of being an Associate in the Dominican Order. I just love to be with the sisters; they are now an extended family of mine. Whether I am visiting the sisters, speaking with them on the phone, or responding to prayer requests, I feel like I am carrying out my duty to them to the best of my abilities. There are many people who are there to look out for the sisters, but, as an Associate, I have the opportunity to be involved in their lives. My main goal of being with the sisters is to provide them happiness in their old age, and to appreciate their lives of service to the community and to God.

The Associates are a diverse group of people with varying lifestyles, occupations and marital status. They are from various geographic regions as well as ethnic and religious traditions. Associates are called into relationship with the Dominican Sisters of Hope and rooted in the Dominican charism; they gather with the Dominican Sisters of Hope as a faith community for mutual spiritual bonding, growth, nourishment, support, and empowerment. To learn more about the Associate program, click here.

This post was written by Dominican Sister of Hope Associate Neil Burke. Catholic New York has more on his journey with the Sisters.