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Obituary: Father Dennis Burns, famed canon lawyer, former tribunal official and pastor


Father Dennis J. Burns Pilot file photo

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Father Dennis J. Burns, a priest of the archdiocese of Boston for more than 59 years died on Aug. 25 in Salem. He was 88. His long life and priestly ministry brought him to various assignments and found him assigned as assistant, student, practitioner and eventually teacher of canon law, campus minister and chaplain and pastor in two archdiocesan parishes.

Born on Nov. 21, 1920 and raised in St. Peter Parish, Cambridge he was the only son of the four children of the late Dennis and Mary (Forde) Burns. After attending the parish’s grammar school he entered the high school seminary of the Divine Word Fathers then located in Duxbury. He received his undergraduate degree, and A.B. from St. Mary College, Techny, Ill. and studied theology with the Divine Word Fathers. He returned to the archdiocese as a student at St. John’s Seminary. His contemporaries report that he had an outstanding grasp of Latin and served as the “note taker” when classes were conducted in Latin. Dennis would take notes in English and by the next morning he’d have them typed up, mimeographed and distributed, a sign of many such services he would provide throughout his priestly life.

Archbishop Richard Cushing ordained him at Holy Cross Cathedral on May 3, 1950 and assigned the freshly minted priest to the relatively new parish of St. Jude, Waltham as an associate. In 1953 he was associate at St. John Parish, Roxbury. The following year he was assigned to graduate studies in canon law, a field that he would grow to love and serve, either full time or part time throughout the remainder of his life. He was granted three degrees in canon law, JCB, JCL, and JCD, the bachelor, licentiate and doctorate respectively. His dissertation, ‘‘Matrimonial Indissolubility: Contrary Indications’’ was published by the Catholic University of America Press in 1963.

For the next 30 years his priestly ministry was in various positions in the archdiocesan tribunal; he served as secretary or notary, advocate, defender of the bond, vice-official, officials, and judge. At the same time during these years he was also a beloved chaplain at Regis College, Weston (1957-1969); in residence at St. Gerard Majella, Canton, Immaculate Conception, Weymouth and St. Mary, Charlestown.

He returned to chaplain duties first at Marycliff Academy, Winchester (1961-1963) and then back to Regis for a six year stint (1963-1969). Between 1969 and 1975 he was in residence at St. Mary of the Assumption, Brookline, and then served as resident chaplain at the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph, Brighton (1975-1981). During all these assignments he was also fulltime in the above mentioned tribunal assignments as well as serving on various committees and commission related to canon law. These years immediately following the Second Vatican Council saw a dramatic shift in the operation of marriage tribunals as the more than two decade long process of the revision of the Code of Canon Law was carried out. In short, Father Burns was busy on many fronts.

In 1987 Cardinal Law named him pastor of St. Raphael Parish, Medford and in 1990 pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish, Marblehead. With the same gusto he had shown in all previous assignments and never betraying even momentarily his age, Father Burns took both parishes with delight and great attention, always a reserving a good bit of time for his great love for canon law.

When Sister Sharon Euart, RSM, the executive director of the Canon Law Society of America was informed of his death she said “I just saw it in list serve of the society. I can’t believe it. I just saw him at the Eastern Region meeting a few months ago and he was the first to remit his dues for 2010... I think he had also registered for the convention in Louisville in October.” She subsequently confirmed this. “You know he was president (1979) and received our ‘Role of Law Award’ in 1993.” When informed he was going to be 89 in November she was as shocked at that as she had been at the news of his death.

Perhaps a quote from his acceptance speech in 1993 sums up his love of canon law and it’s professional society. “You have all shared with me your wisdom and your friendship over these years; you have elected me to serve you in office; you have given me great laughter and some of the happiest times of my priesthood. You have above all given me a vision of the Church I could not have imagined. You have shaped my understanding of the law in service to the People of God.”

Father Burns brought that vision and love of law to the parishes and people he served. When Archbishop O’Malley granted him senior priest/retirement status in 2005 he moved just next door from Marblehead to Swampscott where he served as senior priest in residence. As Father Tom Rafferty the present pastor said “He celebrated daily and Sunday Mass, he had celebrated a baptism in early July and was scheduled for a wedding in October in one of his previous parishes. He really never retired.”

Bishop Francis X. Irwin was the principal celebrant of Father Burns’ funeral Mass at St. John the Evangelist Church, Swampscott on Aug. 29. Concelebrating with the bishop were Father Joseph O’Keefe, SJ, dean of the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, who was also homilist; Father Thomas Rafferty, St. John’s pastor; Msgrs. James Tierney and William Roche, both senior priests at Regina Cleri and classmates of Father Burns, Father James McCune, archdiocesan director of the office for senior priests; Father Gerard Brennan, senior priest, Regina Cleri and Father Joseph Foster, pastor St. Francis of Assisi, Medford, former parochial vicar of Father Burns at Marblehead. There were also other contemporaries, friends and collaborators of Father Burns who concelebrated the Mass.

Following the funeral Mass Father Burns was buried in Waterside Cemetery, Marblehead. Father Burns’ sister, Gertrude is his sole immediate survivor.

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