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A legend: Fr. Norbert Burns 1924-2020

Father Norbert Burns, S.M., who taught a popular marriage course to more than 27,000 University of Dayton students, has died. He was 96.

Editor's note: A podcast, videos and photo gallery with and of Fr. Burns can be found at the bottom of this page.

Legendary is often overused, but not in this case. The well-loved priest never missed a class in nearly 60 years of teaching. He was the Cal Ripken Jr. of the classroom. Beyond teaching, the 1945 UD graduate touched countless others during his days as a marriage counselor, radio host and presider over weddings and Masses. 

"I first came to know Father Burns through the eyes of alumni from coast to coast during my first year as president. The deep affection, the lessons learned about relationships, the heartwarming stories of a caring teacher — I knew I had to meet this legend," said Eric F. Spina, University of Dayton president. "During my occasional visits, I learned that this legend was not a giant but rather a gentle, loving, simple man who dedicated his life to his beloved Mary and his beloved University of Dayton. If I close my eyes now I can still feel the warmth of his embrace and his powerful words of faith whispered in my ear. I will miss him."

Powerful words, but as the word of the Aug. 28 death of the professor emeritus spread over social media, alumni offered a similar refrain, calling him "a great educator and an even greater person," "one of my favorite professors ever" and "my professor and cheerleader and amazing support in all matters of the heart."

Those who took his "Christian Marriage" course will remember his hospitable, gracious nature, his willingness to tackle conventional wisdom and controversial topics — and his enduring message about relationships, which are built, he said, on the bedrock of friendship. "The best kind of preparation you can have for married life is how you are as a friend," he often told his students.

And who could forget his professorial style? His priestly collar tucked casually in his breast pocket, he would bound into class 15 minutes early so he could personally greet each student. He engaged the class so quickly in lively discussions about marriage and relationships that they soon forgot about the generation gap between them — and that as a Catholic priest, he had never married. He rarely referred to notes and ran the fast-paced class in the mold of talk show pioneer Phil Donahue.

"He helped young people think realistically about marriage, and he was very pastoral," said Bro. Raymond L. Fitz, S.M., president emeritus. "He could communicate the spirit of what Jesus wanted in marriage — love, mercy and forgiveness."

In a phone interview from Philadelphia, President Emeritus Daniel J. Curran called Burns "a fixture" on campus and a supportive, loving colleague. "His death is a big loss. He was inspirational and zany, and students just loved him," he said.

A Cleveland native, Burns served as a Marianist religious for 77 years and a Marianist priest for 67 years. He earned a doctor of sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (the Angelicum) in Rome in 1955 and a licentiate in sacred theology from the University of Fribourg in 1954. 

For 25 years, he hosted a Dayton call-in radio show, "Challenge of Modern Day Marriage," on WVUD-FM. For years, he spent nearly every night until midnight in his campus office counseling couples, and he'd typically perform two or three weddings a week. In his later years, he presided over wedding vow renewal ceremonies at UD's Reunion Weekend, where he affectionately greeted alumni with hugs and warm words.

For nearly a century, he invited others into relationships — the one word he said defined his life's work.

"Call it love, communication, friendship, belongingness, whatever you want," he said. "It's the greatest gift you have."

A private Mass of Christian Burial will be held at 5:15 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 3, jointly with a Mass of Christian Burial for Bro. Lawrence Cada, S.M. who taught at UD from 1963 to 1971. Cada, who died at the age of 82 on Aug. 27, most recently he worked at the North American Center for Marianist Studies in Dayton since 2005. Because of COVID-19 concerns, the Mass of Christian Burial is private for Marianist brothers, Marianist sisters and invited family members and friends. There will be a livestream of the Mass at https://qac-ohio.org (Click on the "Live Streaming QAC" button and scroll to the Funeral Mass). Visitation will take place before the Mass from 3 to 5 p.m. at Queen of Apostles Chapel, Mount St. John, 4435 E. Patterson Rd, Dayton, 45430. Attendance at the visitation is open to the public observing COVID-19 restrictions with masks and physical distancing.  

Contributions in Father Norbert Burns' memory may be made to the Marianist Province of the United States through the Marianist Mission (4435 E Patterson Rd, Beavercreek, OH 45430) or to the Father Burns Scholarship Fund at the University of Dayton (300 College Park, Dayton, OH 45469-7054).


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