By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
PHILADELPHIA – Religious vocations are crucial, and Dawn Renee Chism, a lawyer and assistant general counsel with the Philadelphia School District, knows it well.
“Promoting vocations for priests and nuns is important because they are at the foundation of the Church,” she said.
That’s why she is a member of the Serra Club of Philadelphia, part of a worldwide movement whose sole purpose is to promote religious vocations. And it’s not just priests to celebrate Mass, it’s also the nuns who were an important part of her own education growing up in University City’s St. Francis de Sales Parish where she received her sacraments.
“For the future success of Catholic schools you need a religious presence in the schools,” Chism said.
Born and raised in West Philadelphia, she’s the youngest of two daughters of Jacqueline and Vernon Chism. After de Sales she went on to West Catholic High School for Girls, and after her graduation in 1973, continued at Villanova University for her undergraduate degree and University of Pennsylvania School of Law, from which she graduated in 1980.
Growing up, Chism enjoyed writing and public speaking and toyed with a career in archeology. It sounded so romantic with lots of travel, but the pay isn’t very good, so she thought better of it. After law school she spent the first seven years of her career in commercial and construction litigation with Dilworth Paxson and has been part of the in-house counsel with the School District.
The Catholic faith instilled in her at St. Francis de Sales and West Catholic was reinforced at home. “My mother is very committed to the Church, and she kept me focused on that,” she said.
Most African-Americans have their roots in the Protestant traditions of the South, but some are turning to Catholicism, Chism believes.
“I see more Protestants converting in my own parish,” she said. “I think they have to feel there is a place for them in the Church. There has to be. Cardinal (Anthony) Bevilacqua and Cardinal (Justin) Rigali have been most welcoming. There is more spanersity in worship and music, and now we have more (African- American) priests.”
A former board member of the St. Thomas More Society, Philadelphia’s Catholic lawyers’ association, she was recruited for the Serra Club in 2000 by fellow attorney Eugene Boggia, who was at the time president of the Philadelphia Serrans. Chism quickly rose to the position she now holds in the club – vice president for external affairs. In this capacity her organizational skills come into play by overseeing outside events for the group, including the annual altar servers’ Mass and the annual luncheon for newly ordained priests.
This latter is most gratifying because after supporting and encouraging the young men through their years a St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Serrans see the final result. “You feel you had a part in helping them to stay focused, and they all tell us Serra had a major part in it,” she said.
Chism enjoys music and her beloved Phillies, but still finds time for St. Francis de Sales. Most recently she played a leading role in the parish’s successful effort in the Heritage of Faith-Vision of Hope campaign by fundraising, service on the Special Gifts Committee and speaking at Masses where she emphasized the importance of the campaign to the parish.
“My education and training is a product of the school,” she said. “I feel my Catholic education allows me to be successful in life.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.