A Good and Faithful Servant

by Paulette Curran

Deirdre Burch had hard beginnings; in fact, they read like something out of a British novel.

Deirdre was born in India in 1932, when it was a British colony. Her father, an English businessman, was Catholic, and her mother, Protestant.

When Deirdre was less than two, her parents went on a safari, during which her father was bitten by a rabid dog. He went to the hospital, and, told not to worry, he returned to the safari. A month later, he was dead.

Deirdre’s mother, who was pregnant, was devastated. A brother-in-law was visiting India, and he helped her take care of the business affairs. The mother found out she was virtually penniless, and along with Deirdre, she returned to England.

There her parents, estranged from each other, gave her no support. One of her mother’s relatives, however, lent her money, and she and her two small children (the baby was born by then) went to an aunt in Ireland, where they stayed until Philida, Deirdre’s little sister, was 18 months old.

Deirdre’s mother received a small government pension for her husband’s work, and she eventually got a job as a veterinarian’s assistant.

But though she was now in better shape financially, she was no longer able to cope with everything. So she sent Deirdre, by now age 3 ½, to boarding school. The child must have felt abandoned.

Deirdre was supposed to be there for at least a term, but, as she later put it, she “disgraced herself.” What had she done? She stole some raisin cookies!

Deirdre was then sent to another school, and Philida joined her.

Deirdre and Philida spent much of their childhood in boarding schools, several different ones. For World War II was raging, and more than once, they had to change schools because the area they were in was being bombed.

Meanwhile, Deirdre’s mother was having an affair with a soldier. When Deirdre was eight, she and Philida, arriving home from school for the summer, were presented with a newborn baby boy.

Their mother asked the girls if it would be all right if they kept him. They said yes. It wasn’t until she was fifteen that Deirdre learned that he was her half-brother.

So, growing up, Deirdre was poor, she never had much of a home, and because of the war, she was surrounded by destruction and chaos.

But there was at least one very positive thing in her childhood. Possibly out of loyalty to her deceased husband, Deirdre’s mother always sent the girls to Catholic boarding schools, and there they were taught the faith.

It was through the nuns in one of these schools especially, that faith entered deeply into Deirdre. And that was to be the most important thing in her life.

When she was old enough, Deirdre needed to earn money for her family. But she wanted to help people, and so, at the same time, she attended nursing school. She graduated with honors and went on to study midwifery.

In 1960, after ten years of working both as nurse and midwife, Deirdre and Philida (also a nurse) immigrated to Hamilton, Ontario, in Canada.

It was there, just a few months later, that Deirdre heard about Catherine Doherty and Madonna House.

Deirdre was not one to share much about herself, and we don’t know how God moved her to embrace the Madonna House vocation. All we know is that she visited Madonna House a couple of times, and decided to join.

Then as a member of Madonna House, she had many experiences and adventures, mainly though not entirely, as a nurse or midwife.

Her first assignment was Carriacou, a small island in the West Indies, where she served as a midwife. The island had a small hospital with a doctor, but there was little equipment. For anything beyond very minor surgery, the patient had to be sent to Grenada, which was four to six hours away by boat.

Carriacou was, in Deirdre’s words, “a very interesting practice and experience.”

Her next assignment was to first train and then serve as a public health nurse in the Madawaska Valley, the area around Combermere.

In 1970, she was sent to Honduras, where we then had a house. The medical needs were overwhelming. Though there were four doctors in town, they were not interested in treating the poor.

“The doctors told us we were welcome to do whatever we could,” said Deirdre, “and they were willing to see the more serious cases.”

Deirdre did not know Spanish and had to communicate with hand movements or other MH staff translating. Honduras was, said Deirdre, “another interesting nursing experience.”

In 1971, she went to Cuernavaca, Mexico for Spanish immersion, but due to political pressures, the school closed.

Next, she was back at St. Joseph’s House in Combermere, this time giving first aid to the local people and working in their lending library.

She wasn’t there long. Soon she was back in the West Indies, this time in a small fishing village in Grenada. There she did not nurse.

In 1974, she was sent to Edmonton where we have a house serving alcoholic and transient men. There “I did first aid for the men and again much of that was listening to their different life histories and their reasons for turning to alcohol.”

Her last “interesting” nursing missionary experience was in La Loche in northern Saskatchewan, where there was no Madonna House and she was a lone apostle.

The nearest doctors lived about a hundred miles away. They went by bush plane to La Loche for clinics twice a week.

When emergencies occurred between those times, Deirdre had to deal with them. When necessary, she would phone the doctor for instructions. There must have been some “interesting” experiences there, too.

Finally, for the last twenty years of her life, Deirdre was in Combermere, working in our handicraft center, where another facet of her rose to the fore—the artist and craftswoman. She also worked in the herb garden and helped in food processing in late summer and autumn.

At the same time, her love for the missions continued to burn in her heart, and now that she could no longer be there in person, she took every opportunity to help in other ways. Especially, she took on a school in Liberia.

I think we can say that, all told, Deirdre had a very “interesting” life. Who would have dreamed of such a life for a little girl who lost her father and so much else so early in her life? Obviously, God did.