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Profile: Monsignor Doyle
The enduring legacy of Monsignor Michael Doyle
By Kate Morgan

A city is a living thing. It grows and adapts, constantly building and reinventing itself. Cities worth knowing have history, tradition, culture, all woven to create a soul. And the very best cities have a heart. Many say Camden’s heart is a person – a soft-spoken Catholic priest – named Michael J. Doyle.

The Irishman arrived in the Camden diocese in the late 1950s, teaching in area high schools before moving to the city proper and the Waterfront South’s Sacred Heart Church and School in 1967. It didn’t take the outspoken Doyle long to make his mark. In 1971, he led an antiwar activist group – which included three other Catholic priests – in breaking into a draft board office in the city to destroy draft cards of local men most likely to be sent to Vietnam.

There was an FBI informant in the bunch, and Doyle and his compatriots, dubbed the “Camden 28,” were arrested. Doyle represented himself in the high-profile trial, explaining that “no congressman’s son died in Vietnam because they never got sent to the front. But the poor kids of Camden, they were sent to the front.”

Despite the FBI’s evidence, the Camden 28 were acquitted by a jury of their peers, and Doyle, the young agitator, was soon named Sacred Heart’s pastor. In the more than 50 years since, he’s become the neighborhood’s moral compass, its beloved defender and its source of passion and hope. A new documentary about Doyle, which debuts in Camden this month, is aptly called “Heart of Camden.”

“This one man had the vision to create a thriving community in one of the poorest neighborhoods in one of the poorest cities in the nation,” says Carlos Morales, executive director of Heart of Camden, the affordable housing nonprofit Doyle started in 1984. “I remember him saying, ‘I want people to have access to the water, to green space, to clean air.’ People would look at him like, ‘Ok, we just want to eat.’ But he thought bigger. His horizon was further out. He made people demand and expect more. I think he gave us permission to hope.”

Morales knows firsthand the impact Doyle has had on countless families. When he and his sister were students at Sacred Heart, they experienced housing insecurity and homelessness, moving with their mother between friends’ houses, into a car, and finally, into a women’s shelter on Penn Street.

“To add more pressure, my mom had fallen behind on tuition payments,” Morales remembers. “They scheduled a conference to find out what was going on. At that meeting, my mother broke down and told them what was happening in our lives, and Monsignor Doyle was called over.”

Just a week before, a deceased congregant’s son had donated her house to the church. Doyle walked the Morales family over to Winslow Street, unlocked the door and handed them the keys.

 

 

“It was life-changing,” Morales says. “It’s one of those moments that sticks with you forever, when life takes a different turn. He said, ‘This is your house.’ Not that life was easy after that, but it gave us stable housing so my mother could focus on getting stable employment. We got sponsors for our tuition. The church held the mortgage; a model that gave someone like my mother, who would’ve never had that opportunity, access to homeownership.”

Through the Heart of Camden and under Doyle’s leadership, more than 250 homes in the Waterfront South neighborhood have been rehabbed and sold to low- and moderate-income families.

Doyle’s vision for the community extended beyond filling empty houses. He also spearheaded projects to bring arts and culture back to the Waterfront South district. While its theater was being built on Jasper Street, Doyle hosted the South Camden Theatre Company in Sacred Heart’s basement. He was a driving force behind the opening of the Nick Virgilio Writers’ House, the Camden Shipyard & Maritime Museum, the Camden Fireworks arts studio, and a community gym and field house which now carries his name. He’s kept the school alive and well, running on private donations and tuition sponsorships. In between Sunday homilies, he also found time to write a collection of poetry that became a film narrated by Martin Sheen, as well as monthly letters to the congregation that were compiled into a book with the tongue-in-cheek title, “It’s a Terrible Day: Thanks be to God!”

He also focused the eyes of the nation on Camden in 1983 when he starred in reporter Harry Reasoner’s Emmy-winning 60 Minutes segment, “Michael Doyle’s Camden.”

Morales was looking to highlight these projects and the rest of Doyle’s lifetime of good works when he reached out to Doug Clayton, a local filmmaker, proposing a documentary on the Heart of Camden and its unstoppable priest.

“Other people burn out after a few years and move on, but not him,” says Clayton. “So how does he recharge his batteries and keep moving forward? I think it could be that he’s a totally selfless person.”

Or it could be that in a city like Camden, there’s always more work to be done. Doyle hasn’t forgotten his childhood in rural Ireland – or lost its lyrical accent – and Clayton says one person interviewed in the documentary explains why the Monsignor has kept working long past retirement age: “He sees himself as a farmer. Farmers never retire.”

His congregants are his crop, and Camden his field. Doyle has spent more than half a century weeding, fertilizing and cultivating.

“He saw crime, drugs, empty housing, families breaking apart. How do you battle that? He created the Heart of Camden and put families in those homes,” Clayton says. “How do you face down crime? We interviewed former Police Chief J. Scott Thomson and found out Father Doyle was his principal at Sacred Heart. He was so influenced by Father Doyle not taking any nonsense from anyone.”

Clayton, who brought in production company ArtC to assist on the documentary project, says it’s impossible to be around Doyle without being inspired. The monsignor is now approaching 90, and surgeries in recent years to treat mouth cancer have made speaking more of a chore, but still, Clayton says, “he inspires people in a very quiet way. He’s very soft-spoken, which makes people lean in and really listen to what he’s saying.”

Most of the time, what he’s saying is simple. As Doyle is known to say often, the past six decades of remarkable work boils down to this: he was just “doing his bit.”

 


You can see “The Heart of Camden” at a special screening and cocktail reception on April 16 at The Collingswood Ballroom. For more information, visit FatherMichaelDoyle.com.

March 2020
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