By Br. Alfonce Kugwa
He was for some time a pilot for Gweru Diocese, flying the Cessna aircraft bought by American doctors who manned mission hospitals, a mechanic, an electrician, a singer and a great cook before he dedicated the greater part of his life as the Novice Master of the Brothers of St. Paul, a local congregation of Catholic Brothers in the Diocese of Gweru. He became a formator par excellency who groomed ordinary young man to become religious brothers consecrated to serve God and human kind.
His name is Br. John Burkart, a Swiss missionary who died at the Bethlehem Mission Society Regional House on 23 January 2021. Br. John Burkart came to the then Rhodesia in 1953. He earned himself a nickname “Madede” for always walking bending backwards because of his pot belly.
He spent his early days in Zimbabwe doing mechanics and electrical work at Driefontein mission but carrying out maintenance work in different mission stations in the Diocese while he was responsible for flying the Cessna jet plane used to transport patients to Harare and mission doctors from one hospital to another. Br. John became the Cessna pilot in 1969 and was succeeded by Br. Bruno Buchmann. A multi-talented man he was. He was a renowned plumber who taught many young men the trade of plumping. Because of his interest in music, Br. John was the leader of the Grass Electronics Band which performed at Diocesan gatherings and functions.
Because of his wit and charming character, he was a man of great influence in both the SMB community and the whole Diocese of Gweru. This landed him at the Brothers of St. Paul formation house when he was appointed by the late Bishop Tobias Chiginya in 1986 and took charge of the novices in 1990. His dexterity made him a perfect master in moulding the brothers with professional skills and forming them into men of prayer.
Br. John turned around the fortunes of the former Bishops House by introducing livelihoods projects ranging from mechanics, farming, animal husbandry and piggery. He sourced for funding to support the material needs of the Brothers and developed the congregation’s infrastructure through construction of a state of the art noviciate, a garage and the chapel. Br. John, as he was affectionately known, nurtured the African Brothers to be competitive and responsible in managing their affairs and handling the needs of the church. It is through his effort that the local brotherhood has grown like the mastered seed with brothers serving in different capacities in dioceses of Zimbabwe.
Despite the many challenges that he faced in dealing with young brothers and an African mind, he remained steadfast and did not lose himself in the game. He continued to play his brotherly role and contained the situation with love and humility.
Knowing that one day he would leave the Brothers on their own, “Madede” invested in the education of local formators by sending a good number of Brothers for training in religious formation in Kenya and other countries. Thus, when all was accomplished, he retired in 2000 to stay at the Frislar House in Gweru urban but remained very much connected to the Brothers whom he supported financially and with advise on how to steer the ship.
One of his outstanding characteristics was his generosity to all people especially his former students at Driefontein whom he continued to support even in his old age. Br. John was a true philanthropist who paid school fees for orphans and children from difficult backgrounds. He was a benefactor to the Diocese, the congregation and to individuals who knocked at his door for assistance. Br. John moved to the SMB Regional House in 2017 where people continued to connect with him to receive gifts, wisdom and counsel.
His death on 23 January 2021 was a sad story to the Diocese of Gweru, the Brothers of St. Paul and the SMB community. He will be greatly missed by all because of his unwavering support to the the mission of the Church. Br. John was buried at Driefontein Mission on 26 January 2021.