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Celebrating Priests
Pat Dawson '71

Left: Pat Dawson '71 on his service trip with Arm in Arm in Africa

A few years ago, Archbishop Bernard Hebda asked Catholics in the Twin Cities Archdiocese to suggest three steps the church could take to enhance its standing. The request came in the aftermath of a $220 million settlement in one of the most publicized series of clergy abuse cases in the nation. 

My counter-intuitive response was to ‘celebrate priests.’ It seemed as though all clergy suddenly were viewed as potential abusers and that incensed me. The instruction and encouragement I received from my Jesuit mentors at Prep – Fr. Sullivan, Fr. Foster, Fr. Kuder, Fr. Fitterer to name a few – had been such a positive influence that I cringed when priests I knew now hesitated to introduce themselves as ‘Father.’ 

My lifelong association with priests took a unique turn in 2018. Fr. Jim Cassidy, an Archdiocesan priest at St. Joan of Arc parish in Minneapolis, had been ‘my priest’ and family friend for more than two decades. In 2000, while ministering to the AIDS community for a large healthcare organization, Jim visited South Africa to witness firsthand the epicenter of the virus. 

It was seven years since Nelson Mandela had walked out of Robben Island and the government policy of apartheid had ended, but the scourge of Bantu education, of absentee fathers, of forced relocation, of unrelenting unemployment continued. Jim recognized that AIDS was just another in a long line of symptoms to treat. 

This priest responded in the Jesuit tradition of social responsibility from half a world away. He created Arm in Arm in Africa (, a non-profit now in its 23rd year of providing food, healthcare and education in townships that stretch from Cape Town to the Eastern Cape. Each year, Jim would take a dozen or so parishioners on a delegation to ‘meet the cousins they’d never known.’ I joined the delegation in 2018 and fell in love with my ‘cousins’ during a lifechanging 3-week visit. I joined the Board of Directors upon my return and became the organization’s first executive director a few months later. 

Arm in Arm provides quarterly food parcels to those residents nominated by their neighbors as ‘most in need.’ Our educational work ranges from early childhood development to weekend mentoring for the collegebound, to Catholic grade school education for children among the poorest of the poor. In healthcare, we support Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity care of mentally and physically challenged adults, and the Days for Girls program to ensure girls can attend school all month long, as well as St. Luke’s Hospice. 

I have journeyed with partners as inspiring as the people for whom we provide: 

  • Fr. Michael Lapsley, an Anglican priest, was targeted by white separatists in 1990. A letter bomb took both his hands, blinded one eye, and caused permanent hearing deficit. In response, he created the Institute for the Healing of Memories and has worked worldwide to enable healing between those in conflict. 
  • Wilhelm Verwoerd is the grandson of Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd, the ‘architect’ of apartheid. He has dedicated his academic and writing career to the renouncement of his family’s legacy and bringing opponents, including combatants in Northern Ireland, together in reconciliation. 
  • Rev. Spiwo Xapile, my fellow director, emerged from the rural village of Malungeni to earn his Doctorate in Theology at Stellenbosch University. This is the same school where the elder Verwoerd had conceived his authoritarian rule. 

For this Prep alum, it has been a privilege to ‘give back’ in this role, the capstone to a career spent consulting with business leaders. It has been made all the richer through the support of many classmates from the Class of ’71. The Jesuit tradition we experienced is alive and well, and the positive impact of committed priests can be seen worldwide. 

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Lisa Fernandez, Director of Communications & Marketing