Bishop Tony Burgess of Wewak | Outstanding Missionary of the Sepik Passes

Bishop Burgess in 2012. Photo supplied by

Bishop Burgess in 2012. Photo supplied by

By Fr. Greg Bourke OFM – Aitape

23 OCT 2013. Anthony Burgess was born on 29 July 1938, the eldest of eight children, in Singleton, New South Wales, Australia. After attending the local convent school he won a scholarship to St. Stanislaus College, Bathurst (Vincentians). Having obtained his Leaving Certificate he returned home to work in his father’s business.

After three years he decided to become a diocesan priest and entered the seminary. Two of his classmates were the future Cardinal George Pell of Sydney and Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne.

Because of his time in his father’s business he was several years older than them. While he was still in the seminary Bishop Guilford Young of Tasmania asked for some of the students to come to Tasmania where parishes were scattered and there were few priests.

Tony agreed and worked as a priest in Tasmania for six years. He then heard a similar request from the Bishop of Aitape in the West Sepik province of Papua New Guinea seeking help. Tony was to remain in PNG for forty years.

Arriving in 1973 Tony was sent to Karaitem near Lumi in the Torrecelli Mountains. Lumi was a large government station and the parish was under the care of Franciscan Fr. Tom Ritchie. When Tom had to return to Australia for some months following the death of his father, Tony cared for both Lumi and Karaitem. Later on he was appointed to Wassisi in the Nuku district. Wassisi is an important station on the junction of the road between Nuku and Wewak.

With the collapse of airlines all the supplies for the missionaries and government had to pass through Wassisi. Tony’s business and bookkeeping skills all came to the fore now. His father had trained him well. He built a large bulk store for all who needed supplies, especially the mission stations. He did not neglect his parish duties. He kept a record of every village visited and made sure none were neglected. He received great support from the Franciscan Sisters at Wassisi and his care for the Religious would be a characteristic he would bring later to Wewak. Maybe being the eldest of a large family left him with a legacy of care.

When Brian Barnes was Bishop of Aitape he appointed Tony to his Council with particular responsibility for Finance. He later became the Vicar General of the diocese. When the terrible tsunami hit the Aitape coast in 1998 it virtually wiped out three large villages. The cost in lives and materials was immense. Tony was a key figure in the resettlement of survivors and the one responsible for making sure that every Kina of donated money was accounted for. At the same time he continued to care for his large parish of Wassisi.

We were caught by surprise when Fr. Tony was named Auxiliary Bishop of Wewak in the year 2000 and took over the diocese two years later. We knew he had a lot of contact with Wewak from Wassisi and was well known to the Wewak priests. He was always a strong, clear speaker and couldn’t stand corruption in any form.

He always worked long hours right to the end. When he got sick a couple of years ago and went to Sydney for tests he stayed with the Franciscans. Many were old friends from PNG including retired Archbishop Brian Barnes and Fr. Tom Ritchie. Tony became a secular Franciscan (former Third Order) in his home parish in Australia.

On his return to PNG at the end of last year he received the award of “Grand Companion of the Order of Logohu” by the Governor General. Therefore he was acknowledged as a “Chief”. He tried to continue working in Wewak until his cancer caused him great pain and eventual collapse. He was airlifted to Sydney on Sunday, 8th September.

He returned to the Lord he so faithfully served this morning, 23rd October 2013 at 7:00 am PNG time.