Raised in Waukon, Iowa, where she was born on November 11, 1884, Sister Mary Cornelia Burke attended high school at Sacred Heart Academy and completed her undergraduate education at Coe College in Cedar Rapids. She pursued additional graduate studies at St. Scholastica College, Duluth, Minnesota. Sister Mary Cornelia formally entered the Sisters of Mercy on March 23, 1909.
Among her notable achievements with the junior college are the introductions of a resident chaplain, enlarging the college library, and renovating the first floor of Warde Hall to incorporate a small theater and music area. Her decision to expand the college’s course offerings to include nursing can be directly associated with her position as Superintendent of Mercy Hospital, Cedar Rapids. While appointed as president of the college, Sister Mary Cornelia simultaneously served as Major Superior of the Sisters of Mercy.
As a former elementary teacher, Burke extended Mount Mercy’s student teaching opportunities to include positions at Immaculate Conception and St. Matthew’s Schools in Cedar Rapids. Her significant work in growing the campus’ education and nursing programs remains her legacy to the college. Sister Mary Cornelia Burke died on December 15, 1950.