Welcome to Chicago Voz’ inaugural 18 on 18th Street, an annual series that profiles 18 people from the Pilsen community. This series will feature residents, leaders, artists and small business owners who have contributed their time and skill toward the betterment of Pilsen. Various names were nominated and voted on by our editorial board and they will be released throughout the month.
While there are many influential Pilsen individuals to choose from, one criteria was to highlight people who are not media regulars. Chicago Voz will profile those who have not received proper media recognition for their work, but are nevertheless the unsung heroes of our community. Congratulations to Pilsen’s 18 on 18th Street!
Priest and Writer – St. Pius V. Parish
For more than 20 years, Father Charles Dahm served in St. Pius V. Parish in Pilsen. Known by many as “El Padre Carlos”, he is beloved for his work with the Latino community and with the working families in Pilsen. He’s an author, an advocate of social rights issues, and most recently, he has worked tirelessly to bring awareness to domestic violence.
Father Dahm’s first exposure to underserved communities was in Bolivia, where, as a member of the Dominican order, he was assigned to work with university students on various social issues and the movement against the Hugo Banzer dictatorship. Such political activities would make him “a person non-grata” in Bolivia, so after five years he returned to the U.S., deciding he would base his work in Chicago.
Here, he helped five religious sisters found the 8th Day Center for Justice, which connects peace and justice issues to the Catholic faith. “I worked there for 12 years on different social justice issues such as world hunger, redlining in Chicago, human rights abuses in Central America, the uprising in Nicaragua and the wars in El Salvador and Guatemala,” he said.
The center also formed the Underground Railroad for the 1980’s Sanctuary Movement which helped transport refugees from the wars in Central America to churches across the United States. “We would also help them integrate into society and also offer them a platform where they could give a testimony about the oppressive regime in their respective countries,” he said.
These formative experiences would motivate his work in the Pilsen community. In June of 1986, Father Dahm joined St. Pius as their priest, where he would learn about the Mexican immigrant experience. “Pilsen was extremely neglected at that time. As we consulted with people, the primary concern was the safety of their children,” he said. Understanding the challenges faced by the immigrant community, he began working to improve their quality of life.
Father Dahm, along with five other priests–six parishes in total–helped to form an organization that would later be known as The Resurrection Project. “We decided that we wanted to form our own organization because we felt that those that existed weren’t really serving the community appropriately. So we formed our own organization to focus on various issues in the neighborhood and the first issue was gang activity,” he said.
Pilsen had been plagued with violence and the neighborhood was notorious for its street gangs. “In the early 1990’s, Pilsen was the number one gang-violent neighborhood in Chicago, which it no longer is. There was tons of violence. We gave up working on that issue because we had a difficult time working with the police. Police were very resistant at the time, which is not the case today,” he said.
The organization then focused on housing, which was an issue in the community due to redlining practices that were common then. Many of the residents living in Pilsen had emigrated primarily from Mexico and in looking to purchase homes, they found they couldn’t afford them due redlining or to their legal or financial status. “There had been no new construction East of Ashland since the Second World War. So there was no new construction and no money available largely because of redlining,” Father Dahm said. In the early 90’s, the organization helped one hundred Pilsen residents become homeowners as part of the New Homes for Chicago program.
Though the neighborhood has changed, “we still have gangs with specific gang boundaries and young people are challenged to cross them,” he said. The population shifts are also affecting school enrollment not just in public schools, but in Catholic schools as well. “There are fewer children in the schools. That has affected the whole education system including the Catholic Schools like St. Pius. It’s a challenge for our school as it is for all schools,” he said.
Father Dahm stepped down in 2007, but he remains active as an Associate Pastor at St. Pius. He has given homily on domestic violence in over 50 parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Chicago, and in 2014 he celebrated 50 years as a priest with the Dominican order. He continues to be an emblematic figure in the Pilsen community, as epitomized in the mural on Ashland and Cullerton that was dedicated to El Padre Carlos.
Father Dahm is author of “Parish Ministry in a Hispanic Community,” which centers on the Mexican community in Pilsen. The book can be found on Amazon.com
Interview by Luiz Magaña
Photos by Luiz Magaña