by F. Graham Millar
(reprinted from Nova Notes, June 1999)
The Rev. Dr. M. W. Burke-Gaffney, S. J., was the founder of the Department of astronomy at St. Mary's University, where the observatory atop the Loyola Building is named for him. In his honor, the Halifax Chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has established the annual Burke-Gaffney Award for the best paper of the year in Nova Notes.
The delightful Fr. Burke-Gaffney spoke in the silky intonations of the Irish gentleman. He was of slight and lithe build. Fr. William Lonc has retold this little story Burke-Gaffney told on himself: On his arrival in Canada, the immigration officer, filling out a form, asked him what he thought was a physical feature of himself, too which he replied, "I'm puny!" - at which the officer exclaimed, "You're right!"
Michael Walter Burke-Gaffney was born in Dublin in 1896. He studied at Belvedere and University College, Dublin. After graduating in 1917 as B. Eng. from Dublin National University, he worked in London at the War Office, and then for the Air Ministry. In 1920 he came to Canada and worked in Manitoba as a bridge engineer.
Having earlier studied theology in Ireland and France, he joined the Society of Jesus, and in 1930 was ordained a priest. Continuing his studies at Georgetown University in Washington, he earned a Master's degree and in 1935 a Doctorate in Astronomy. He then lectured in astronomy at St. Regis College, Toronto, and also taught in Regina and Winnipeg.
Fr. Burke-Gaffney was appointed to the then Jesuit-run St. Mary's University in Halifax, where he was Dean of Engineering 1940-1948 (including Dean of Science for four years), and Professor of Applied Science 1848-1955. He continued to lecture in astronomy until 1955. He then became Professor Emeritus and special lecturer. Being a popular speaker, he was invited to address diverse groups on a variety of subjects. He died in 1979.
Fr. Burke-Gaffney belonged to many scientific associations, authored many journal articles, gave many lectures, and received many awards and diplomas. Lists of these associations, accomplishments and honours, plus his personal notes, are available in the archives of St. Mary’s University. His side interests, so to speak, were wide ranging. He wrote several books, including Kepler and the Jesuits (1944), Daniel Seghers (1961), and Celestial Mechanics in the Sixteenth Century. He investigated UFOs, superstitions, demonology, and more. He wrote poetry and collected flowers.
I would like to thank Ms. Wendy Bullerwell, of the Saint Mary’s University Archives, for material on Rev. Burke-Gaffney including the accompanying picture.