This weekend at Pilsen’s St. Pius V Church, Fr. Charles Dahm, known to most people as Fr. Chuck, celebrates his 50th year as Catholic priest in the Dominican order. At today’s 11:15 a.m. mass, Fr. Chuck said, “I am astounded by the blessings I received in my 50 years as a priest.” Since 1986, Fr. Chuck has served as pastor of St. Pius until his retirement a few years ago. Now, he advocates against domestic violence. In an August 2013 PBS interview, Fr. Chuck emphasized the importance of working against mental and emotional abuse in too many homes—especially Latino homes. “Priests generally do not talk about it,” Fr. Chuck said. “And most dioceses in the United States have no services, or very limited services, for victims of domestic violence.” To address this social issue, Fr. Chuck established a fund to empower women and families affected by domestic violence.
Since he entered the priesthood in 1964, Fr. Chuck searched for ways to help others recognize how Jesus challenges us to use our faith to work for justice. In 1974, Fr. Chuck became the promoter of social justice for the Dominicans. With five religious sisters, he formed the 8th Day Center for Justice. The organization protested against a secretary of agriculture who prevented people from knowing about the food stamps program. Fr. Chuck helped organized a march with people pushing empty shopping carts into Chicago’s downtown area to challenge the politician’s selfish policies.
Another protest included a canoe on the Chicago River to commemorate the one-year anniversary of a Central American refugee massacre. With a religious sister and a supporters standing on the edge of the Chicago River, Fr. Chuck helped tint the river red to ensure people remembered the refugees’ unjust murders by military force.
Fr. Chuck shared today how working with this group of religious sisters helped him appreciate the contributions of women and understand the oppression that women suffer. The sisters “constantly challenged me, which was for my own personal growth,” Fr. Chuck reflected.
He found inspiration to start the 8th Day Center for Justice during his first assignment in Bolivia. There, Fr. Chuck learned about "the crushing effects of poverty." His global perspective changed. “I began to see the world through the eyes of the poor,” Fr. Chuck said. He went on to say that the Bible guides to “side with the poor.”
When he came to St. Pius V in 1986, he learned to understand and appreciate a different way of worshipping and celebrating. Most importantly, Fr. Chuck learned about the immigrant experience. “I didn’t know very much about Our Lady of Guadalupe. I had to be taught and learn about her great love not only for Mexican people but for everyone,” Fr. Chuck shared in his homily today. He went on to say how, at St. Pius V, he experienced the immigrant community’s values of “generosity, hospitality, a spirit of hard work, love of family, the great faith of community.”
Because of Fr. Chuck’s leadership, St. Pius V established one of the largest domestic violence support programs of any parish in the United States, effective parenting programs and after-school programs, as well as the Resurrection Project. In 2004, Fr. Chuck published a book about this experiences in this Pilsen parish: Ministry in a Hispanic Community.
When I returned to St. Pius in the late 90s, I had my doubts about re-establishing a connection with the Catholic church. My parents baptized me at St. Pius, but we moved to 26th Street where I attended a Catholic school and church that promoted a deep fear of God and, through subtle actions, elitism in the our neighborhood. I remember being told to put all of my supplies away in my locker because the “CCD kids” would be sitting in our desks on the weekend. Something might disappear. I learned to think that we were better because we wore uniforms to school and covered our books. At church, I learned to be dead silent.
So when my wife, my girlfriend at the time, invited me to attend mass with her, I regularly turned down her invitation at the end of our Saturday night dates.
Eventually, one occasional Sunday at a time, I started to re-connect myself with a Catholic faith that saw prayer as an organizing force.
In one conversation with Fr. Chuck, he said to me, “We don’t see you around here much on Sundays.”
“Well, Fr. Chuck,” I said, “I don't believe in having someone telling me how to pray.”
He pulled down his glasses to the tip of his nose and stared at me. In a serious low tone he responded, “Attending mass is about praying together as a community.”
I didn’t know what to say.
One Labor Day Weekend at the 9:15 a.m. mass, I sat in the pew and saw Dolores Huerta, the United Farm Workers civil rights leader walk in. She spoke during the mass and reminded us that holiday weekend how we must value people who labor with the their hands and with their hearts.
I’ve been a regular member at St. Pius since. My Sunday attendance—almost every Sunday now—helps me understand that the Jesus I believe in was not a martyr, a victim, and the God I believe in does not terrify and he does not punish.
The Jesus I believe in was a rebel, an organizer who cares if we have a decent job, if we live in a safe home, if we use our talents to help others. I made sense of how my progressive views fit within a Catholic faith.
Today, Fr. Chuck ended his homily telling us how a church leader asked him, “What are you going to do for the rest of your life? Where are you going to go?”
Fr. Chuck responded, “I don’t want to go any place else. I feel that I’m at home at St. Pius. Here I have found life, and faith, and love, and opportunity to serve the Lord.”
Congratulations on 50 years of faithful service to our Catholic communities, Fr. Chuck.
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