Local News and Stories

Faith, love and music: A profile of Jan Burke

By Dan Branch

When Jan Burke was a child and was known by her maiden name of Soboleff, she and her family would ride on the Princeton Hall to visit the towns and villages of Southeast Alaska. Her father, Presbyterian minister Dr. Walter Soboleff Sr., conducted services from the deck of the Princeton Hall. Jan sang in the choir and sometimes accompanied them on the piano.

When people in the village saw the Princeton Hall approach they ran to greet the boat. The kids had Sunday school and the adults attended a church service right there on the dock. Everyone in the village would get all dressed up for the occasion. I asked Jan what it was like to be a child playing music for such a church service, where everyone is eager to participate. She found it exciting to lead the singing with the piano because the louder they sang the happier she would be. Jan brings this same spirit to the Cathedral when she plays the organ at Sunday Mass.

Jan was born at the old U.S. Government hospital, the oldest of four siblings. Her mother, Genevieve Ross, was a registered nurse. She was Haida, born in the now abandoned village of Howkan on Prince of Wales Island. She eventually served as the first health aide for Tenakee Springs. Jan’s dad, Walter, was born in the Tlingit village of Killisnoo on Admiralty Island. He graduated from the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa.

Walter began his ministry in 1940 as pastor of the Memorial Presbyterian Church in Juneau. Later he became an associate pastor of Northern Lights Church, taking turns preaching with a Methodist minister. Jan and her mother would play the piano for church services.

Jan graduated from Juneau Douglas High School and attended the first year of a pre-nursing program at Arkansas Community College in Kansas. The Director of Education for the Bureau of Indian in Juneau arranged for her to board at the Chilocco Indian Agriculture School, just across the state border in Oklahoma. Eighteen other Alaskan students lived at Chilocco, including a Yup’ik student from Bethel named Henry Ivanoff. Jan still counts Henry as one of her friends.

Before leaving Juneau, Jan dreamed of riding a horse across a prairie. This wish was granted at Chilocco, but not in the way she expected. A horse she was riding inside a corral suddenly jumped the fence and galloped away. Jan dropped the reins. The driver of the bus that had taken her to the stable used a horse to catch up with the runaway. When he told Jan to grab the reins she said, “What are the reins?” Her rescuer managed to grab them and stop the horse. Jan told me that she couldn’t walk for a week but it was worth it for the chance to ride a horse across the prairie.

Jan would have returned to the nursing program if she hadn’t met her future husband Ted Burke during summer vacation in 1962. She wasn’t sure what her parents would think of Ted. When she started dating her parents told her that they wanted her to marry a native man, she should not go out with anyone in a Coast Guard uniform, and she shouldn’t marry a Catholic. They eventually learned to love and accept Ted even though he was in the Coast Guard, non-native, and a Catholic.

Ted and Jan met at Percy’s Soda Fountain on Front Street. It was then the place for young adults to meet, eat French fries and drink green rivers or cherry cokes. The Viking Bar is located there now. While standing out in front of Percy’s with a friend, Ted asked Jan is she would like a cup of coffee. She said, “sure.” He asked her out to dinner the next week but had to cancel because the Sweetbriar, his ship was called out to perform a rescue. He called when he got back and they started dating. This was 56 years ago.

Jan and Ted were married January 5, 1963 at the Cathedral by Father James Manske. Dr. Soboleff walked Jan down the aisle for the wedding. When Jan turned to face the congregation, she discovered that the entire left side of the church was full of people that attended her father’s church. Ted’s family couldn’t attend because they lived on the East Coast. The commanding officer of the Sweetbriar and his wife stood proxy for Ted’s parents. The entire crew of the Sweetbriar also attended.

At the end of the ceremony there was a reception line at the back of the church. There her father told her, “If you choose to be a Catholic, be a good one.” Jan did eventually join the Catholic Church.

After the wedding, Jan and Ted moved to Massachusetts where Ted was to be stationed. Jan and her parents were worried that she would have a hard time fitting in. On the flight East, Jan tortured herself with worry until she just decided that she would be herself. This, happily, worked well. She was welcomed by Ted’s family and became friends with family members close to her in age.

Ted was eventually reassigned to Juneau. By then Jan was a Catholic. She and Ted lived with Jan’s parents until they could find their own place. One Sunday morning, while Jan was rushing to get ready for mass her mom said, “You know what, I think you make a better Catholic than you did a Presbyterian. You are up and about and ready, and no one has to tell you to go to church.”

Ted spent 31 years in the Coast Guard. Half of that time was in Juneau. The other half was Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, and San Diego. Jan felt that they were always dragging their four kids across country in a car. None of their children moved after they were married. Three of them live in Massachusetts and the other one in Juneau. Her father participated alongside a Catholic priest or bishop at each of their weddings.

Ted convinced her to play the organ in the Catholic Church. She has played music for the Cathedral on and off for 50 years. At one time the church had a pipe organ in the choir loft but it wasn’t working during the time Jan played. It was removed and sold. She played a Hammond organ for the church for a time. It was better suited for rock and roll than church music. Jan could play it and make it sound fine but it was limited. The Hammond was so well built they had a heck of time disassembling it so it could be taken out of the choir loft. Eventually the current organ was purchased from a Jewish Synagogue in the Seattle area.

Jan takes turns with Jim and Martha Stey to provide music for the Saturday evening and Sunday morning 8:30 A.M. services. She puts in a lot of work preparing for mass when she is playing the organ. She makes sure that the songs she plays will be liturgically correct for the day by studying the scripture reading for the mass beforehand. While doing that sometimes a hymn will pop into her head. She double checks the liturgical planner to make sure that it is one of the songs recommended for the mass.

This past year Jan played for Easter Vigil, Holy Thursday, and on Easter Sunday morning. Before services, especially ones, like funerals, which are difficult emotionally, or ones for which she is expected to play a technically difficult piece, she prays for God to help her stay calm, and play with reverence. She finds that He always helps her.

At the end of her interview, Jan told me that she has been at the Cathedral long enough to see many changes to the Catholic liturgy and in her life. Over that time she and Ted have learned to live their faith, which has helped them raise their family and be happy together. She tries to be positive in all things that she does. That comes through the music she plays for us in God’s house.