RSCJs elect alumna as new superior general

Barbara Dawson will oversee RSCJ in 41 countries, visiting each twice during her term.

The Religieuses du Sacré-Coeur de Jésus convened in Italy last summer for their General Chapter meeting, which included the task of electing a new superior general to lead the order for the next eight years.

“If you told me when I joined that I would end up becoming superior general, I probably would have said that will never, never, never happen,” Barbara Dawson, RSCJ, said. “I’ve always considered myself too much to the left of the group.”

As superior general, Dawson will oversee approximately 2,500 nuns in 41 countries, bringing experience to the job from previous ministries in education, non-profit management, and human rights and immigration law. A San Francisco native and alumna of Convent (’66), Dawson has a B.A. from Lone Mountain College, an M.A. from Stanford and is a member of the bar in both California and Missouri.

“Originally, I thought I would just get some kind of graduate degree and then work in higher education,” Dawson said. “But then I went to law school and it turned out that I liked law. Then I knew that I didn’t want to go back to patrolling college dorm halls.”

After graduating from law school, Dawson worked in immigration law in San Francisco, representing clients for low fees or on a pro bono basis.

Before making her final vows, Dawson traveled to Mexico to learn Spanish, and while there became concerned that her work in law did not converge with the life of a nun.

“The legal system is a power system — it’s all about who’s in power and how smart you are,” Dawson said. “Your goal is to win for your client, so there was a point when I thought that maybe being a lawyer wouldn’t work with being a nun.”

After further reflection, time spent running a mental health program, and more work in immigration law, Dawson said she realized that practicing law is like living out the Goals & Criteria everyday — law is intellectual, community-based and demonstrates living with social awareness.

“I think that one of the reasons I was elected [to be superior general] is because I like complex problems and figuring out how to solve them and move them forward,” Dawson said. “I think that comes from being a lawyer.”

Current issues the Religious of the Sacred Heart face are reorganizing the provincial system — a 50-year-old structure that breaks the society into smaller governing bodies — and a redistribution of wealth and resources among the members of the order.

“Most of the people entering our order are coming from the Southern Hemisphere and have different needs than we’ve had to deal with before,” Dawson said. “We have money, but all the money is in the Northern Hemisphere and all the people are in the Southern Hemisphere.”

As superior general, Dawson will work with a diverse team, including nuns from Mexico, India, France and Congo, none of whom all share a common language; through hard work and patience with one another, Dawson hopes to find cohesiveness quickly.

“When I was first entering the order, I thought that becoming a nun was the way that I was going to give myself to something fully and completely,” Dawson said. “Back then, I don’t think I knew what that was, but at least for right now, my path is laid out.”