Dawson, Father M. David Interview
This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Father Dawson. He is going to talk about his career with the St. Martin of Tours, and how he is consolidating three parishes into one solid unit. Today’s date is Jan. 13, 2022. This is file # 48, cycle 4.
JM:What is your name?
DD:My name is Father M. David Dawson. I am originally from Delaware. I have been in Connecticut ever since I attended UCONN. In 2014 I had the privilege of being ordained with what others would say was a”late vocation”. Prior to my current assignment of being at St. Martin of Tours, I was at St. Patrick’s in Collinsville, Ct. combined with my assignment of being the Chaplin at Northwest Catholic in West Hartford. Before that I was at St. Bridget’s & St. Helena’s in West Hartford. They are new combined officially; before they were just linked which just meant they were separate accounts. Separate councils, but they shared a priest. Now they are one parish which is called St. Gianna Nolla. She was a saint who was expecting and given a terminal diagnosis. Maybe we could save you if we eliminated the baby and give you treatment. She opted to do everything she could for the baby to live while she allowed herself to expire.
JM:When did you come to this area?
DD:I was assigned here a little more than 3 years ago because I got here on Sept. 10, 2018. They were setting up for their big Sept. 11th event that they do every year in front of St. Joseph’s. They had a giant crane with a long flag flying from it. They had stuff starting at 6:00 AM. I got here on the 10 and I am still kind of trying to figure out what flag? Was this the only place I needed to be that day? What were the schedules here and all that other business?
JM;Where did you receive you seminary training?
DD:I was at St Mary’s at Emmetsburg, Maryland which is about 20-25 miles south of Gettysburg which is the only thing anyone has heard of in the area. It is also near St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s shrine and remains about ½ mile from that. I was there for 2 years for the priest theology, where you get your philosophical training, and 4 years of theology. But while I was theology, they also made me simultaneously get an on-line master’s in management from Villanova.
JM:What was your first career?
DD:The one known as a career as opposed to job hopping, I did 14 years in banking including 5 years in credit cards in Delaware, and I did 9 years with Fleet/Bank of America.
JM:You enter seminary when you were 38?
DD:Yep it was a month or two before I turned 39. I was with a bunch of really young guys: it was a very unique experience.
JM:Oh it would be. What is your goal for St. Martin of Tours?
DD:I have one goal as a priest: I want as many people close to Jesus Christ and eternity as possible. At this point anything that can actively be done to make us from three parishes into one in mindset as well as in fact and legally would be a wonderful gift. To try to keep our heads above water with the trending financial and volunteer base eroding. I believe in miracles.
JM:We all do, they may be little ones, but there are always miracles.
What are the three churches that you serve?
DD:I serve currently St. Mary’s in Lakeville which in on top of a hill and has the most beautiful Crucifix that I know of. It is a gorgeous piece of art. I like to just sit there and pray when nobody is in the church. I like looking at the crucifix over the Tabernacle where our Lord is. Here at St. Joseph’s in Canaan where people say, “How come you still have Mass on an icy day?” I live next door! Why wouldn’t I? Then we have Immaculate Conception in Norfolk which has the most gorgeous stained glass windows in the diocese for my money.
JM:Each church has something especial.
JM:Now what are the services at St. Mary’s?
DD:St. Mary’s has a 9:00 AM on Sundays and an 8:00 AM on Friday mornings as well as funerals or other things as needed. St. Joseph’s has a 6:00PM on Wednesday and it has a 5:00 PM on Saturday as well as confessions 2:30-3:30.
JM:I was going to ask you about that.
DD:Well there are certain events during the year and we will try to make special arrangements to offer confession in at least one during Lent and Advent at each of our other churches. Since we are the geographic center and we have the confessional totally rearranged just for safety, for propriety, windows in the doors so people can see there is nothing questionable or visible contact. It is for preventing any false allegations.
JM:which is very sensible How about the services at Immaculate Conception?
DD:We have Thursday morning at 8:00 AM and we have 11:00 AM on Sundays.
JM:So you do a service at St. Mary’s at 9:00 o’clock and then you scoot over to Norfolk and do a service at 11:00.
JM:Oh that is going to be tight.
DD: And stop to grab an ice tea to get some caffeination before I head over there.3.
JM:When you have confession, is it always at St. Joseph’s.
DD:Typically yes, but even when I have had it in other locations, by far most people choosing to participate come here, between geography and…
JM:It is hard. It is hard for you, it is hard trying to get kids to come in the library because of the transportation, and it is an issue.
DD:St. Mary’s uses that little choir room that they have then I will turn this little wall so people can see me thru the choir room window but they can’t see the person who is confessing, unless they want to be seen.
JM;What about catechism? Do you do that here as well?
DD:We use the Bitterman Center which if you come out here and you turn left, it is equivalent of a block up the road which is our most up to date and most lavish church hall. It is funded by Bingo which happens there on Friday nights. With the Catholic Church you would expect it to show up in the conversation somewhere.
JM:Of course! I mean that is part of the territory!
JM:Do all of the catechism children come here?
DD:As of this year yes. There used to be two events, but now there is only one because we don’t have the teachers or the children, or the resources to do otherwise.
JM:About how many children come?
DD:I believe it is in the low 30s currently.
JM:Good for you!
DD:If everybody who is supposed to come came.
JM:It fluctuates, but that is a good number.
DD:We are going through some transitions like the current person who leads it and we have been bless with her services for quite some time. She is married to our deacon. We are just in the process of transitioning next year so that somebody else can succeed her,
JM:She is Mrs. Pat Beecher?
DD:Yes she was a librarian in public schools for many years. She is a very sharp organized cookie.
JM:You need that when you are dealing with kids.4.
JM:What time does this happen?
DD:Normally it meets at 6:30 on Wednesday nights so if somebody wanted to come to the 6:00 PM Mass, they would be out just in time to go to the 6:30 catechism.
JM:You have one half hour Mass?
DD:Weekday Masses are shorter, no music and nobody wants to hear me sing!
JM:They haven’t heard you, that’s all.
DD:Oh they have heard me. Their choices are to participate and join me or heard me, it is your call. They are 2 different things. Once a year I do a thing where I go through the church and explain what all the things are, all the doohickeys and then I go thru the Mass and explain that too. If you understand what is going on, you are far more likely to being engaged that is you are channel-surfing in church.
JM:You have to have them buying into whatever it is.
JM:How many parishioners are on the rolls?
DD:I believe at least prior to Covid it was 380.
JM:Covid is an issue all by itself.
DD:By God’s grace we actually have people connected to the parish, but we have not had anyone actually die of it who attended the parish nor the parish laity. WE did have a lot of people who just for whatever reason were careful.
JM:Wanted to be careful- What is the attendance at St. Mary’s?
DD:It varies but the attendance there tends to be a little higher, primarily because of its time where parent like to have it first thing Sunday morning. If I were to change the schedule, I would have fewer in church and more elsewhere. It fluctuates from 50s to the 80s on a really good week. We haven’t had many really good weeks lately.
JM:Not during the winter anyway. One of my caveats is I don’t drive in snow, especially not over Smith Hill.
DD:It was fun on Sunday.
JM:Oh I’ll bet!
DD:I had 20 people there on Sunday. That was nice, but I was able to get there up Smith Hill. But hey whatever if I can be there, I will be there.
JM;I think everybody is understanding and forgiving. “The Chosen” tell me about that please.
DD:Oh sure It is a video series that’s made by a group of no particular denomination. It is a ___season series on the life of Christ. Jonathan Roumie is the main actor. He is very Catholic. They are hoping to do 8 seasons of 8 episodes each. What I like is that all funding is voluntary because they don’t want a corporation telling them, “You have to change or omit something in the script.” It is not only one of the most personable, yet still powerful representations of Christ that I have seen on film. Normally Jesus Christ is either a wuss or a tough guy. The 1970 pictures were just like OK?
JM:Yep, got it. This is held at the Bitterman Center.
DD:We held the first season there during Advent because there were 8 episodes so we did 2 a night for 4 weeks. I am arranging Season 2 and wrote them and got permission without violating any copyrights.
JM:What time do you have it?
DD:We had it at 6:30 on Monday nights. I am not sure if we are going to have season 2 or having some other project. At some point we’ll get to see it. Season 3 is allegedly is ready to come out. Anybody can download the app and watch it for free on any compatible device. We bought the DVDs.
JM:Do you have discussions of it afterwards?
DD:I am not organized for that. They may talk about it as they wish. It starts at 6:30 and ends at 8:30. It is dark and the average age of our parishioners is older. If they wished to, I would be very happy too.
JM:We talked before about the property and you said that you own 11 buildings and 4 cemeteries. There are some problems with all of that property.
DD:Nothing is new of the buildings. I think the Bitterman Center maybe the newest building we have. That is the nature of the beast.
JM:So there is a lot of maintenance.
JM:What are the 4 cemeteries? I know about St. Mary’s.
DD:There is in Falls Village St. Patrick’s. There is not even a road to it from the main road. You have to go through somebody’s land. Unless someone has pore arrangements we no longer accept new admissions there.
JM:That is a passive one.6.
DD:But if somebody has pre arrangements, we will honor it. (There is one in Canaan on Sand Road and one in Norfolk, I assume Ed.)
JM:I am going to ask you a little bit about various committees of the churches.
DD:There aren’t many committees
JM:No but what of the parish council?
DD:The parish council, well tonight we are having a joint meeting for the parish and finance council. Just to go over our 2020 to 2022 budget because I wanted to wait until the Christmas season was officially over. We have a few_______. We have 9 members on the parish council plus me. I am not cure if the chairperson counts as one of them. While they are from each of the churches, I keep reiterating, “You are not here to advocate for a church, but for the welfare of the parish as a whole.”
JM:So I would assume there would be three people from each church.
DD:That is the goal. That way if somebody doesn’t show from a church, somebody else will be there to carry on.
JM:So at least you have a representative from each church.
DD:Right The finance council I think we have maybe 2 from each church. There I have to be a little more focused and you also need a certain skill set, but in those cases people are invited because we don’t want necessarily the most popular, we want people who can contribute intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.
JM:I would assume that your skill set would be quite good with the finances because of your previous career in banking.
DD:That is a completely different thing. I was a drone in a major corporation.
JM:But you still have to know how to add one and one and get three.
DD:I do make sure that whenever funds are counted as per collection, I am not even on site when that happens. I will not be alone with it, just so…
DD:Yeah they cannot accuse me of anything.
JM:I understand. Do you have a building & grounds committee?
DD:We have a cemetery committee. Right now they are facing a number of issues. To put it nicely, there is not the reverence that there used to be among people using the cemeteries. There were people
having a pumpkin carving party this October at one of our cemeteries. They do other things and they make sure that those that dig the holes fill them and all that.
JM:You don’t have problems at St. Mary’s.
DD:No Kathy Hawley is a Godsend.
JM:Yes she is super.
DD:And her husband Jack.
JM:Oh yes I work with them because in Salisbury as town Historian, one of my responsibilities is to maintain all of the cemeteries. She is perfectly marvelous.
DD:They make a great team, those two.
JM:They do. They have been super helpful when I have had, not issues with them, but I will call and ask what do you need> How can I help? It is a private cemetery, but if I have any kind of resources that I can offer, that’s my job.
DD:I believe only half of it is private. Half of it is ours and half of it belongs to the town.
JM:That’s Salisbury Cemetery and is a different cemetery under a different association.
DD:That is how it was explained to me.
JM:Yes they are right together. St. Mary’s is church owned. The Salisbury Cemetery is town owned but is run by the Salisbury Cemetery Association.
JM:Priest rotation, how long do you stay in your assignment?
DD:Typically, as if that word is ever applied anymore, the letter appointing you says you are there for 6 years. Now that doesn’t mean that you might not get a phone call one day saying, “We need somebody with your skill set in situation A more than we need you in where you are for now.” You have the letter for 6 years and theoretically you could be renewed for an additional 6 year term. Right now given the changing of the landscape and the closing of churches and consolidation and the lack of vocation in the northeast of the country, you do what you have to do.
JM:Oh yeah, we all do. Outreach programs. You said the Northwest Corner Food Pantry is part of it.
DD:They use our building, but we don’t actually have a role beyond that. We are also do things to help us support a food pantry in each of these towns Canaan and in Norfolk.
JM:Loaves and Fishes here in Canaan. What is the one in Norfolk?8.
DD:That is a very good question. I want to say Norfolk Food Pantry, but I could be wrong. We do things with… I know Botell School in Norfolk normally do this Socktober thing where they have people donate socks for the homeless, this that and the other. We do Giving Trees that we normally do if someone is involved with social services of the town for Christmas. We do various activities like that as well as the fact that I have at least a monthly Mass at Noble Horizons and at Geer. Of course if somebody needs anointing of the sick, then I will happily get to them as soon as they are allowing people in the building which right now they are for the moment. So I go fairly regularly to do that too. Once in a rare while we call to Sharon if we have someone on the sick there. Folks at Noble know me and at Geer they know me as well at the rehab.
JM:Before we close is there something you would like to add?
DD:It is not my church; it is the people’s church: it is fully God’s church and hopefully we are making it what He wants it to be. He has a much better religion than I or anybody else does.