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‘A schools man’ called to serve

First slide

Bishop Michael F. Burbidge was the first to use the new tennis courts at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh, N.C. As his racket smacked the fuzzy yellow ball, he told the students, “I needed to make the first hit, because as bishop, I’m called to serve.”


Serving Catholic schools has been one of the great joys of the bishop’s life. It was a love he developed while attending Catholic schools in Philadelphia, and while teaching high school for five years early in his priesthood.


During an Oct. 5 visit to Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Bishop Burbidge told the students he would have been a teacher if he weren’t a priest. When asked to give advice to teachers, he told them, “Wake up every morning and be grateful God has given you such a beautiful ministry. Every day you get to be with these wonderful young people. Give them the truth in love.”


Jennifer Bigelow, superintendent of schools in Arlington, was principal of the Franciscan School in Raleigh during Bishop Burbidge’s tenure. She remembers his frequent, personable interactions with all the students. Once, he let a child try on his zucchetto.


“He said, ‘You know, if you try it on and it fits perfectly, you’re probably going to be a bishop,’ ” said Bigelow. “It fit the child perfectly. The kid just lit up and it was just so meaningful. He can relate to kindergarteners all the way up to high school students.”


Julia Ryan and Anthony Schinelli, seniors at Cardinal Gibbons, said they see the bishop at their school about 10 times a year. He frequently stops by the journalism classroom, said Ryan, and eats lunch twice a year with the vocations club, said Schinelli.


“Seeing that he's such an important figure, but so normal and down to earth, is really cool,” said Schinelli. “Seeing him really makes me feel like becoming a priest doesn't mean you give up who you are.”


Principal Jason Curtis said the bishop would text him to ask what was going on at the school that night and then stop by to see the sporting event, play or concert. “It’s so awesome being in the middle of the Green Army (the school’s fan section) and having him cheering next to you,” said Ryan.


Besides spending time with the students, Bishop Burbidge has advocated for schools by supporting state legislation that enables more parents to afford a Catholic education. Now in its third year, the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship program assists thousands of families.


“He’s very concerned about making sure our schools remain open and accessible to the average Catholic family … while paying our teachers a competitive wage,” said Mike Fedewa, Raleigh superintendent of schools. “He’s a schools man.”


Each year, Bishop Burbidge celebrated the baccalaureate Mass for several schools, including Cardinal Gibbons. After seeing how the bishop engages with the students, many parents would tell Curtis,


 “That's why I send my children to a Catholic school,” he said. 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016