Fr. Charlie Burton marks 40th anniversary of his ordination this year by indulging his passion — the priesthood
By Dan McWilliams
Pittsburgh Steelers jerseys and a Terrible Towel, lion figurines, a sheet of $2 bill star notes, and a photo of a favorite singer, Jackson Browne, are in his office.
That can only mean one is in the domain of Father Charlie Burton, who is celebrating his 40th anniversary as a priest this year.
The longtime pastor of St. Jude Parish in Chattanooga and former longtime pastor of St. Dominic Parish in Kingsport has served throughout East Tennessee over the years since his ordination July 11, 1980, at St. Jude.
“Though life has changed significantly over the last 40 years, especially as we look through the eyes of a pandemic, and though various ministries have provided different opportunities and responsibilities over these years, it has always been in the back of my mind that as a priest, I am to bring the person of Christ to God’s people,” Father Burton said. “The example of Father Cooper and Father Lucas, our parish priests while I was growing up, indicated that God wants his priests, frailties and all, to use their talents and abilities in the service of his people. We are to be ministers of grace and knowledge and comfort.”
Throughout his priesthood, Father Burton has “frequently used my love for the Scriptures. Whether it has been in preparing and giving daily homilies or preparing and offering classes, I have thoroughly enjoyed the love of the Scriptures offered to me by Father Peter Duncker and other Scripture professors at the Angelicum University. They opened up to me a marvelous world and a desire to venture into that world to gain an ongoing and fuller understanding of Christ and the Church.”
Father Burton’s other assignments over the years include Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville, Holy Family in Seymour, Knoxville Catholic High School, Notre Dame in Greeneville, St. Henry in Rogersville, Good Shepherd in Newport, St. James the Apostle in Sneedville, and the Catholic Campus Ministry at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. And he is a former director of deacon formation for the Diocese of Knoxville.
“By offering Mass and my weekly Bible Study on Facebook during this pandemic, I have renewed online many friendships from over the years,” he said. “Present and former parishioners are watching, and I notice their presence. People from my tiny hometown in Western Pennsylvania are watching and participating. People from various churches in East Tennessee, where I have served, make themselves known to me. I am so grateful for their thoughts and prayers.”
St. Jude is a special place for Father Burton, as is St. Dominic.
“I have now been at St. Jude for the last 11 years. I came here at the end of July 2009 after 14 years at St. Dominic in Kingsport. Both places are especially dear to me,” he said. “When I first came to live and work in East Tennessee in July of 1977, after visiting Chattanooga and St. Jude in the summer of 1976, Father Lu Schnupp hired me as summer help (as a janitor).
“In August, he asked me to stay and work in the school and help with various ministries, and I agreed. I loved it. Even though previously I had been a seminarian for the Diocese of Erie, Pa., I requested that I might join the Diocese of Nashville. I was accepted and at the beginning of the next school year I returned to the seminary in 3rd theology. Two years later I was ordained a priest at St. Jude by Bishop [James D.] Niedergeses. St. Jude had become my adopted home. Many of my friends of 40 years earlier were still here in July of 2009 when I returned as pastor, and that was a comfort, and the many more new ones have been a great joy. To be with children and a school has been a significant element of my priesthood. I have been connected directly to a school in 32 of 40 years as a priest.”
In 1994, Knoxville’s founding bishop sent Father Burton to St. Dominic.
“It had been my first assignment as a newly ordained priest in 1980. I remembered St. Dominic fondly and returned there to serve them as their pastor,” Father Burton said. “It was a wonderful time devoted to change and growth and debt and building. I loved it dearly. Though I knew I had been given an extended time there (14 years) and deeply appreciated it, I was sad to go, but, at least, I was returning home to Chattanooga and St. Jude.”
Father Burton said that he has “carried several quirks with me.”
“First is my love for the Pittsburgh Steelers. As soon as the season is over, I am in preseason. I root for them every Sunday and have their app on my phone,” he said. “Second is my love for good smoked kielbasa. For over 25 years, I have been making a fall trip to visit my sister and brother in Western Pennsylvania and pick up each year 200 or more pounds of smoked kielbasa from Urbaniak’s Meat Market in Erie, Pa. I have shared it from Kingsport to Knoxville to Chattanooga.
“Third is that I am a coin collector. It is a hobby that I have had since I was a boy, looking through my dad’s pocket change. And fourth is my love for dogs. Honey died last year, and so I am without a dog at the present time. However, since 1989 until last year, Sami, Happy, and Honey were my constant companions for over 30 years.”
The pandemic postponed Father Burton’s 40th-anniversary celebration.
“Maybe we can do something next year. Who knows?” he said. Father Burton loves one thing above all else.
“I have always loved being a parish priest. It is my greatest joy,” he said. “I intend to continue to do that as long as I can. I am 68 years old now and I love what I do and appreciate all those who share ministry with me. The dedication of our associate pastor, of our deacons, of the church office staff, of Mrs. [Jamie] Goodhard and the school staff, of PRE [parish religious education], of youth ministry, of RCIA, of the music ministry, of the CCW, of the Legion of Mary, of the Knights of Columbus, and of all involved in ministry in any way help so much in serving the parishioners of St. Jude and their needs.”