Douglas Clayton fell in love with Msgr. Michael J. Doyle while directing an ambitious new documentary about him called Heart of Camden. The filmmaker has plenty of company: Tens of thousands of people in the city and beyond have embraced the Catholic priest and poet who has been Camden’s indefatigable champion for nearly half a century.
“I wanted to tell a story that inspires people to make a difference,” said Clayton, a producer (thefilmdoc.com) well as the director of the 42-minute documentary, for which he is seeking broadcast, screening, and streaming opportunities. “Father Doyle is an amazing person.”
Doyle retired in July after more than 40 years as pastor of Sacred Heart Church, a landmark in the city’s resilient Waterfront South neighborhood. What had been a dwindling congregation in a faded building has survived and thrived: The church, a brownstone landmark that opened in 1887, has been painstakingly restored, and the Sacred Heart School next door has benefactors around the world.
Doyle founded a nonprofit called Heart of Camden in 1984 that has since renovated and sold 250 neighborhood homes and helped develop a gymnasium, live theater, writers house, and art gallery with studio space. There’s also an environmental center with an urban farm. Collectively, the parish and Heart of Camden have brought new life to the Waterfront South neighborhood and helped mitigate a legacy of toxic pollution, disinvestment, and racism.
“In Waterfront South … [there is] injustice, on top of injustice, on top of injustice,” Doyle says in a clip of a 2010 community meeting that is included in the film. “We deserve the justice of remediation more than any area in the United States.”
Affection for the Irish-born priest, who’s 85, runs deep in the city; the recent drive-in premiere of Heart of Camden, held on the city’s waterfront, culminated in a spontaneous ovation of car horns. “It was just unbelievable,” said Clayton. The sold-out screening drew more than 300 people, including Doyle, and raised $32,000 for Heart of Camden, organizer Sandi Kelly said. She likened the car-horn ovation to an expression of “spontaneous, collective love."
Doyle was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw in 2016. After two grueling procedures and a long convalescence, he helped pastor Sacred Heart for a couple of years before his retirement. He now lives in a compact, memorabilia-filled rowhouse on Jasper Street, a.k.a. Michael Doyle Lane, across from Sacred Heart School.
During a recent interview he looked well, seemed a bit frail, and was as warm, witty, and kind as ever. He said he was grateful that “nobody beat me up” in the documentary, which he enjoyed and admired. He called Clayton “a wonderful gentleman with a capital G” and was especially pleased by the film’s depiction of a city that’s often caricatured, or dismissed.
“It was the way I would like Camden to be looked at, and respected,” Doyle said. “Camden strengthened my hope, because Camden did change. And of course I love the people of Camden. They are very decent, very good, humble people.”
Doyle also told a moving story — included in the film — of Olga Morales, a neighborhood mother of two who was experiencing homelessness, who once asked him for $10. “A week later she came to the rectory. There she was with her dignity and her goodness, to give me the $10 back," he said. "I never wanted it back, or expected that.”
Later, after a house in move-in condition was donated to the parish, he gave it to Morales, who went on to raise her children there. She died in 2005 and her son, Carlos Morales, is now Heart of Camden’s executive director. A conversation he had with Clayton ultimately led to the film project.
“Father had a major impact on my life and also on the neighborhood and the region,” said Morales. “We wanted [the film] to capture not only his story, but his message about doing your bit, doing your part to help others. Father’s message is evergreen.”
Clayton, a self-taught filmmaker who grew up in Collingswood and lives in Lawrenceville, N.J., shot Heart of Camden in 2019 and collaborated with editor/cinematographer Frank Weiss, of Philadelphia, and producer Bill Horin, of Linwood, Atlantic County.
Other participants include longtime Doyle admirer Martin Sheen, who narrates the movie (the actor also reads from Doyle’s letters to Sacred Heart supporters in Sean Dougherty’s 2008 documentary, Poet of Poverty); and the mezzo-soprano Barbara Dever, a Camden native and stalwart member of the Sacred Heart Community who leads a sing-along with parish children shown during the closing credits. Ann Baiada and her husband, Mark, founder of Bayada Home Care, underwrote the production costs, and Pepe Piperno, a neighborhood native whose Domenica Foundation has helped fund a number of projects, including the Waterfront South Theatre, also was a key sponsor.
The variety of people who helped make the film as well as the neighborhood’s evolution possible, and the diversity of voices on the screen, are a testament not only to the power of Doyle’s charisma — his brogue can be mesmerizing — but the impact of his accomplishments. As former Camden Mayor Dana Redd, who’s known Doyle since she was an orphaned student at Sacred Heart School, says in the film: "He draws you in and leaves you with his imprint …[so] you’re ready to go out and change the world.”
Back in his living room on Jasper Street, Doyle had a more modest assessment.
“I did all right, but I think I was always overrated. I made too many mistakes,” he said. "I won’t accept that I failed badly, but I will accept that I failed nicely.
“Hope is the best four-letter word in the English language,” said Doyle. “Whatever we do to promote hope for people is a great blessing.”