Desire to serve in missions leads Oneida native to Ghana

Sr. Claudette Burkel has ministered to prisoners for more than 30 years

HOWARD — Sr. Claudette Burkel was a fourth-grader at St. Joseph School in Oneida when she first considered being a missionary sister. “We had a missionary club in school,” said Sr. Claudette, 83, who has spent the last 48 years in Ghana, West Africa.

The missionary club met once a month, and their discussions planted a seed in Sr. Claudette’s mind. “I guess maybe just the atmosphere and talking about it,” she said. “One of our teachers had a sister who was a missionary among the Native Americans in the south somewhere, so she really kept us interested that way.”

Sr. Claudette Burkel, a Missionary Sister of the Servants of the Holy Spirit, has served in Ghana, West Africa for 48 years. A native of Oneida, she is home visiting family before returning to Ghana on Aug. 15. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

By the time Sr. Claudette entered St. Joseph Academy in Green Bay, she was determined to be a missionary sister.

“They printed a pamphlet when I was in high school about all of the orders, and I looked up the missionary orders, wrote to a few and decided on this one,” Sr. Claudette told The Compass during an interview at the home of her cousin, Donna Simoens.

The one she chose was the Missionary Sisters, Servants of the Holy Spirit, in Techny, Ill. “I found them pleasant, and they were hospitable and … I liked the dress also,” she said, jokingly. “They had navy blue instead of black.”

After graduating as valedictorian from St. Joseph Academy in 1951, Sr. Claudette entered the missionary community on Sept. 8, 1952. She spent her postulancy and novitiate working in the motherhouse and attending college, and professed first vows in 1953.

Sr. Claudette attended DePaul University during the summers and taught classes at the convent’s high school during the school year. She also earned a master’s degree in mathematics at the University of Illinois.

Her first assignment in 1963 was at a Catholic school in Northbrook, Ill. She then got her first taste of missionary work as a teacher at all-black schools in Greenville and Jackson, Miss.

Sr. Claudette, whose birth name is Jackie, chose her religious name in honor of her father, Claude. Her father and mother, Lillian, raised seven children.

In September 1969, the missionary sister finally got her first assignment abroad. She was sent to Accra, the capital of Ghana, where she taught at St. Mary School for eight years. Sr. Claudette was then appointed regional superior for her community, a role she held for six years.

After completing her assignment as regional superior, Sr. Claudette taught math and religion at Aquinas Secondary School, a boys’ school also in Accra. She spent nearly 20 years at this school.

In addition to teaching, Sr. Claudette began a new ministry that continues today.

“One of the priests (in Accra) wanted some sisters to prepare prisoners for baptisms and first Communion,” she said. She volunteered and enjoyed it enough to continue the prison ministry when she was assigned to Madonna School in Koforidua in 2005, where she currently lives.

“I’ve worked in prisons since the early 1980s,” she said. “I go to them mostly once a week, sometimes more.”

According to Sr. Claudette, prison ministry has been gratifying. “You feel you’re needed and wanted, and the response of prisoners is very nice. … Some people are afraid of prisoners, but I’ve never had trouble.”

Prisons in Ghana are overcrowded, with inmates sleeping on floors shoulder-to-shoulder, said the missionary sister. Medical supplies are limited, and she relies on donations from family and friends to provide basic needs such as aspirin for prisoners.

The sacramental preparation Sr. Claudette provides to prisoners can have long-term benefits.

“Once you have prepared enough people for baptism and first Communion, you can have confirmation once in a while and the prisoners who’ve been confirmed will do most of the teaching,” she said. “From that point of view, you make disciples of them.”

Sr. Claudette returns to Ghana on Aug. 15. She plans to continue the prison ministry as long as she can.

“It gives me a chance to try to bring people closer to God, to let them see what their duty is or their relationship to God means,” she said. “It’s never boring, which you can’t always say about some jobs.”