Sister Joan Dawson retires, continues service in Tampa

If you ask Sister Joan Dawson, O.S.F. if she is looking forward to her retirement this month, she’ll reply with a sweet chuckle, “Well, this is the second time I’m retiring.”

Sister Dawson retired from her 20-year-long role as the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Palm Beach in 2011, and after six months of retirement found that her time was much better served as the diocese’s episcopal delegate for religious. This “I’m not done yet” attitude is the hallmark of Sister Dawson’s 28 years of service to the diocese; she will celebrate her 60th jubilee this year.   

Upon reflecting on her time in the Diocese of Palm Beach, Sister Dawson shared that it was the people—whether in her role as superintendent or episcopal delegate for religious—that made her vocation to religious life so fruitful.

“I’ve always had a love for education and the people you get to know working in schools,” said Sister Dawson. “I’ve learned so much from young people, whether students or new teachers. When I left being a superintendent, I was delighted to find that the religious men and women of our diocese inspired me just as much.”

Sister Dawson shared that the Diocese of Palm Beach is home to religious men and women from a wide variety of places and orders. In her role as episcopal delegate for religious she acts as the liaison between the bishop and religious in the diocese. Her office provides services and programs for the spiritual and personal growth of religious and is the communications center for the diocese regarding these men and women. 

“In working with our diverse population of religious, I’ve loved sharing insights, praying and serving God’s people together. It has built a strong sense of community for me. I especially enjoy seeing how each religious chooses to live out his or her love for the Lord. I leave with great fondness for them all,” Sister Dawson said.

At the time of her superintendence, the Diocese of Palm Beach was still quite young and so Sister Dawson dedicated her time laying the foundation of the role itself and the overall administration and educational mission for the 21 diocesan schools at the time. Her hard work secured the future of what is now the Office of Catholic Schools. “I left the superintendence of Catholic schools in good hands with Mr. Gary Gelo. I wanted the department and the schools to flourish beyond just my time there,” said Sister Dawson.

Likewise, she has enhanced the projects facilitated by the episcopal delegate for religious to include a yearly Mass for jubilarians celebrated by Bishop Barbarito at the Cathedral of St. Ignatius Loyola; a vespers service, in which the bishop also participates; a holy hour service in celebration of World Day of Consecrated Life in which religious renew their vows; and a yearly keynote speaker who addresses matters that influence religious life.

“I strive to integrate religious and the community often,” said Sister Dawson. “It’s important that the community sees the gift of religious life. In the same regard, religious men and women have the opportunity to express their perspective and love for the community during the receptions after these events. It’s powerful to hear their testimony of just being present in the community.”    

The power of presence is something that Sister Dawson has carried with her throughout her vocation journey. At her 50th jubilee, she shared a story about her time away in graduate school when she began to wonder “whether or not I was making any difference in other people’s lives being a religious.” Sister Dawson said a young woman in her class approached her to say she had never met a sister before and felt that a woman like Sister Joan would never talk to her or get to know her.

The lesson learned, said Sister Dawson, was not in what she did, but in her presence and being herself that spoke to her fellow classmate. “God didn’t want me to do any big, enormous work; he just wanted me to be there to say ‘hello’ to that woman. It isn’t so much what we do, but rather the fact that we are ‘available’ when God needs us to be there for another.”

Simi Sahu, a young woman discerning consecrated virginity, spoke to Sister Dawson’s ability to be there when needed most. “Given her office as the episcopal delegate for religious, Sr. Joan was the first person I met with concerning my request to be a consecrated virgin in the Diocese of Palm Beach. She took the time to listen and helped throughout the application, interview and formation. I've been blessed to experience the love of Jesus and the Church in a tangible way through her. I am particularly grateful for her warmth, openness and faithfulness in the time I have known her.”

Sister Judy Rimbey, O.P, the business office manager at Cardinal Newman High School, similarly reflected, “I have had the privilege to work with Sr. Joan while serving on the diocese’s Commission for Women Religious and have come to appreciate Sr. Joan’s strong conviction that all women and men are called to serve the church – the People of God. A particular experience that I remember so well, was when she gave the keynote presentation at the Serra Club Day of Reflection in October 2019.  The theme of the day was Women of the Church.  Her belief, one that she clearly and unequivocally conveyed that day, was regardless of whether one has chosen married life, single life or religious life, every woman has a part in bringing about the kingdom of God.”

Sister Anita Gabarczyk, the first-grade assistant at St. Joseph School in Stuart, said, “In the time that I have know Sr. Joan, I have been deeply humbled by her witness and dedication to religious life. Her sisterly support and love are, and always will be, evident in her words and actions.” Sister Gabarczyk noted that when she and her fellow Sisters of the Most Holy Soul of Christ the Lord came to the U.S. from Poland, Sister Dawson had “a deep openness and welcoming spirit to us, who were new to the country and culture.” 

Sister Dawson plans to move to the St. Elizabeth Residence in Tampa to live in community with other retired women religious. She intends to keep being a presence in the community for anyone who might need her. “I hope to be of service to the community in Tampa; the sisters there do good work with women in need. I’m not done yet!”

Sister Joan Dawson, O.S.F. was born on February 13, 1941, the daughter of the late Mr. and Mrs. Daniel W. Dawson, formerly of Rochester, New York. She attended Good Counsel Elementary School and Nazareth Academy in Rochester, New York. She entered the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, New York on September 8, 1959. She holds a B.A in English from St. Bonaventure University in New York and an M.A. in English from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. In 1975, she received her Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. Sister Dawson has spent her religious life in the ministry of Catholic education. Between 1963 and 1976, she was a high school teacher of English in New York, New Jersey and Florida. In 1976, she became a high school administrator in Fort Myers, Florida. From 1979 to 1991, Sister Dawson served as the superintendent of Catholic schools in the Diocese of St. Petersburg. In 1991, she came to the Diocese of Palm Beach and served as the superintendent of Catholic school until her retirement in 2011. Shortly after, she assumed the role of episcopal delegate to religious men and women in the Diocese of Palm Beach. Within her religious community, Sister Dawson has served as coordinator for education from 1981-1984 and as general councilor from 1984-1992. She previously held memberships in many educational organizations, namely the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), the Chief Administrators of Catholic Education (CACE) and the Florida Catholic Conference Accreditation Committee. She also served on the board of St. Mary’s Hospital in West Palm Beach and currently serves the Allegany Franciscan Ministries Foundation.