Youngest community leader takes the reins of decades-old Santacruzan tradition

Freddy receives a recognition plaque from the Pan American Concerned Citizens Action League, Inc. Facebook photos

By Cristina DC Pastor 

At the fragile age of 20, Federico ‘Freddy’ Burke became the executive chairman of the Santacruzan Festival, continuing a 44-year tradition started by the elders of Jersey City and the friends of his parents.

“I volunteered to become the executive chairman of the Santacruzan and Flores de Mayo of Manila Avenue at 20 years old,” he said, “I promised to CAM that even with my minimal experience and age, I will continue the tradition of the Santacruzan.”

Freddy’s ascent to the leadership of the Catholic Action of Mary was not the result of a power grab or the machinations of his parents, Peter Burke and Luz Obligacion Burke, who are simple folks and long-time residents of Jersey City. Nothing of that sort.

It started sweetly enough with the young chubby boy and only child tagging along with his mother to St. Mary’s Parish and being such a delightful and well-behaved kid. The parish, where CAM holds meetings to plan the annual Santacruzan, became a space where Freddy hung out.

Growing up, he would attend the Simbang Gabi and the Divine Mercy Pilgrimage with his parents, and became an altar server at St. Mary’s.

He attended mostly private Catholic schools: Resurrection School from 3rd grade to 8th grade where he graduated Valedictorian; high school at the Jesuit-run St. Peter’s Preparatory; and college at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., where he pursued a BA in Theology and Religious Studies.

A Santacruzan first at age 9. ‘My mom always voiced to me that as Filipinos, our faith is essential.’

In late 2006, his mother was elected vice president of CAM.  Ledy Almadin, the sixth president at the time, asked if Freddy would like to participate in the Maytime tradition as Constantino.

“At first, I had no idea what it meant to participate in the Santacruzan and what honor it is in the Philippines,” he recalled.

(The religious parade commemorates the search for  the true Cross where Jesus Christ died.  Constantine, the son of St. Helena, carries a cross. In today’s contemporary Santacruzan, such history is lost and the parade watchers feast their eyes on the spectacle of the Reyna Elenas in their elaborate gowns.)

In the summer of 2016, Luz Burke was elected as the seventh CAM president.

“I had promised my mom that even though I am in Washington, D.C. I will still support her 100%. Seeing my mom work so hard, tireless and selflessly, I always reminded her that we are doing this for the Lord and to honor the Blessed Mother Mary,” he said.

Freddy helped make flyers and invitations for the parade and proofread messages and speeches. In 2017, he became the CAM Youth Special Coordinator, cementing his expanding role in the organization.

There would be ebbs and flows in the Santacruzan activity over the years. Declining interest, low turnout in parades and street fair, plus an aging board leadership became issues of concern. Freddy recalled how in September 2018, the board and members of CAM voiced their “exhaustion and concern” of how much longer they can continue the organization and tradition as large and grand as the Santacruzan.

The only child of  Irish American Peter Burke and Luz Obligacion-Burke from Roxas City, Capiz.

“Speaking up, I voiced to the CAM board that we must continue these traditions and the celebration of the Santacruzan will not end!” said Freddy. From Washington, D.C., from  2018-2019, “I held virtual meetings and traveled nearly twice a month to New Jersey in preparation for the Santacruzan all the while as a full-time college student.”

In November 2019, he was elected unanimously as the eighth CAM president and continuing as executive chairman of Santacruzan all the way to 2023.

“Luckily, I am blessed to have seen the past CAM presidents in their work and experiences which have aided me to this day and through the pandemic. Roaring into 2023, I can happily say that the Catholic Action of Mary and the Santacruzan and Flores de Mayo in Manila Avenue is alive and well!”

He graduated in 2020 at the height of the pandemic and was offered to become the Director of Religious Education at St. Mary’s. Two years later  he  picked up a second job as  a  middle school teacher at the Academy of Our Lady of Grace in Fairview New Jersey where he taught Religion and English vocabulary.  

Freddy said who he is today he owes to his Filipino Catholic upbringing.

“As a young FilAm working with a board who are all older than me, I believe a bridge can be built between the older and younger generations.”

© The FilAm 2022

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