Bridget “Tessie” Burke was “Mama Burke” to a large part of the Northwest Side and Park Ridge.
She hosted baptism and birthday bashes, graduations and holiday feasts.
Her backyard, the setting for countless cookouts, featured an inviting screened gazebo and gorgeous flowers that she defended from the rabbits in skirmishes that demonstrated the hawk-eyed determination of the farmer she once was.
It was nothing for her to host 40 people. Catering was not only unthinkable — it was frowned upon. And given the Irish tradition of hospitality, there could be almost no greater scandal than to run short of food.
She made 20 pounds of potato salad at a time, grinding the cooked eggs to a powder between her fingers to give the dish a daffodil color and smooth consistency. It was so good, people took leftovers home and squirreled them away, savoring potato salad for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Her mothering started early. When “Tessie” was young, it was her job to bring currant-studded soda bread and tea to her brothers and sisters as they worked the farm in her native Killasser near Swinford in County Mayo, Ireland. When she arrived with Ireland’s most fortifying beverage, they’d joke, “We’re having tea with ‘T.’ ’’
Most of the eggs were supposed to go to market, but when her parents would leave the farm and head to town, the hens seemed to take a break from laying.
That was because Tessie would cook up the eggs for her brothers and sisters. “She’d always be feeding us,” said her brother, Michael O’Grady.
Tessie Burke with her brothers, the Rev. James O’Grady (left) and Michael O’Grady. | Family photo
“She was always very welcoming,” said another brother, the Rev. James O’Grady, “and wanting people, especially if you were visiting or if she was cooking food, that you enjoy it. That gave her great satisfaction.”
“She was the best mother,” said her daughter, Mary Theresa Griffin. “Everybody loved her. All my friends called her ‘Mama Burke.’ ’’
Tessie Burke with her daughter, Mary Theresa Griffin; son-in-law Martin Griffin, and grandchildren, Bridget and Marty Griffin. | Family photo
The Park Ridge resident died Saturday, a day before her 87th birthday. In the week before she died, confined to bed, she mothered her visitors, urging them to eat with the directive, “Now have something for yourselves.”
Tessie Burke wearing a jersey emblazoned with the number of the birthday she would have celebrated the day after she died.
She came to America in 1954 and gained a foothold in her new country by working at High-Low Foods (“High Quality, Low Prices”), a grocery chain that once had stores all over the Chicago area. Like the old Stouffer’s Restaurant at Randolph and Wabash, High-Low brimmed with Irish brogues. Both companies were known for hiring new immigrants.
She met Martin Francis “Frank” Burke, a native of Castlerea in County Roscommon, Ireland, at a dance on the West Side. She knew it was serious when he gave her a string of stunning pearls for Christmas. They wed in 1967 and lived in Oak Park before settling in Park Ridge. He died in 1991.
Tessie Burke and her husband, Frank. | Family photo
Mrs. Burke worked as a cook at the Jeanine Schultz Memorial School in Park Ridge and also became a sought-after caretaker for the sick and elderly. Her strong hands gave soothing massages, and she fed and dressed her charges as if they were family members.
Tessie Burke loved playing slots at the casino. | Family photo
Slot machines were sirens that called to her. She relaxed with trips to Las Vegas and Chicago-area casinos. Years ago, when it looked like Rosemont was going to get a casino, she exulted, saying, “I’ll be able to ride my bicycle over.” It didn’t happen, and she had to wait for the Rivers Casino to open later in Des Plaines.
In addition to her daughter and two brothers, Mrs. Burke also is survived by her sister, Sara O’Grady, and her grandchildren, Martin and Bridget Griffin.
Visitation is from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Cooney Funeral Home, 625 Busse Hwy., Park Ridge. A funeral Mass is planned at 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Paul of the Cross Church, 320 S. Washington St., Park Ridge.
Tessie Burke with her daughter and son-in-law, Mary Theresa and Martin Griffin. | Family photo