Sister Kay Burton gives thanks for her years in Jonestown

By Jennifer Brandlon
MARYLHURST, Ore. – During recent months, Holy Names Sister Kay Burton realized she’d have to leave Jonestown, Mississippi to return to Washington state. But Jonestown could never stop being home to her. It’s the place where she has lived, loved, taught and built for more than three decades.

Before her departure due to declining health, Sister Kay had a festive drive-by so residents of Jonestown could say goodbye and thank her for her transformative work with children, teens, families and the town itself. She is just as grateful to them for the love and support she has received in return.

“Sister Kay loved being in Jonestown with the local people,” said Sister Maureen Delaney, leader of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary U.S.-Ontario Province. “She loved developing enriching programs with and for the children, teens and families, and they in turn enriched her life with their love and friendship.”

Sister Kay first came to the Mississippi Delta in 1979 to teach summer school at Immaculate Conception in Clarksdale. She, along with several other Sisters of the Holy Names from the West Coast, came to love the warmth and dedication to community among the people they met. During the couple of years that Sister Kay stayed in Clarksdale, she got to know the family of a student from Jonestown. The child’s family urged her to come to Jonestown to help students there who were struggling with their lessons.

It was a perfect match for Sister Kay’s energetic and visionary talents. She had already spent years developing peace education and anti-racism programs as an inner-city teacher and administrator in Seattle, Washington. However, her Holy Names community called her to a leadership role in 1983, and that five-year commitment had to come first. But she purchased a house in Jonestown and continued to support the ministries of the other Sisters who went to Mississippi to teach – including Sisters Rose Monica Rabdau, Mildred Hein, Anne Skok and Teresa Shields.

“I will be forever grateful that Sister Kay chose me to live and minister in Jonestown for 32 years,” said Sister Teresa. “My life has been changed for the better.”

As soon as her term in leadership ended, Sister Kay drove to Mississippi in a van named “Old Yeller,” bought a second house and immediately started remodeling it to make appropriate space for tutoring. She reached out to the community to find out what people wanted, which led her to organize garden projects, softball teams, life skills classes and GED programs. A major emphasis for her was music – despite not being a musician herself, she recruited others to come to Jonestown to teach music, including Dolores Fields Mason, who passed away earlier this month. The result was joyful singing at annual Christmas celebrations and Black history presentations, as well as piano recitals and other wonderful gatherings.

Her successful volunteer recruitment campaigns led to innumerable home repair and Habitat for Humanity projects to benefit Jonestown residents. Volunteers also helped upgrade facilities for basketball, baseball and track, as well as creating a playground for younger children. Sister Kay also took young people from Jonestown on trips to meet Sisters and other people involved in service work in places ranging from the Native American community in Wapato, Washington to the Holy Names convents in Lesotho, Africa.

As difficult as it is for Sister Kay to say goodbye to a place she loves so dearly, she knows that God’s faithful presence in the Mississippi Delta will continue through the many ministries she and the other Sisters have brought to reality.

About the Sisters of the Holy Names: Founded in 1843 by Blessed Marie Rose Durocher, the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary community is dedicated to the full development of the human person through education, social justice, contemplation and the arts. Among SNJM’s chief commitments are advocating for the right to clean water for all, freedom from every form of human trafficking and the welfare of immigrants and refugees. The SNJM U.S.-Ontario Province engages in ministry throughout the United States and the Canadian province of Ontario. More information is available at