Msgr. Michael J. Doyle came to Sacred Heart Church in Camden in 1974 and saw a city ravaged by poverty and white flight.
Many of the church’s white parishioners had fled to Pennsauken, or Cherry Hill, or other South Jersey suburbs.
As a result, both the church and Sacred Heart School struggled to stay afloat. About 80% of the school’s current students are not Catholic.
But poverty did not scare Father Michael, as his congregation calls him. He was born in Ireland on a farm, the second of five children.
“It was a field, not a town,” he said of his origins, a community named Rossduff which, ironically, translates to “black woods,” similar to the name of a town in Camden County: Blackwood.
“The poorest child in Camden probably had a better Christmas than I ever had,” Doyle, 85, said Sunday, just days after the Diocese of Camden announced he would be retiring later this month.
Doyle talked about his imminent retirement, his passion for Camden, and growing up in Ireland, just after helping celebrate the first public Sunday morning Mass at Sacred Heart since March 15, when the coronavirus forced the temporary shuttering of most places of worship in an effort to reduce the spread of the deadly virus.
A faithful crowd of about 45 people attended Sunday’s 10 a.m. Mass at the church that sits like a beacon inside the triangle formed by Michael Doyle Lane, Ferry Avenue, and Broadway.
Everyone wore masks. Blue duct tape X’s marked spots on the wooden pews where parishioners could sit socially distanced from one another.
“I just wanted to thank them all for coming out today,” Doyle said of the brief remarks he made. He said he was grateful to see everyone, and that they had enough trust to come together in church again.
But he didn’t say anything about his retirement during the service. That was left for Susan Cedrone to acknowledge during the announcements.
Doyle will retire on July 15, after 46 years as Sacred Heart’s pastor.
After the Mass, people exited through a side door onto Michael Doyle Lane. There, on the street renamed for their pastor in 2017, they talked with great emotion about him and the prospect of not seeing him on the altar.
“I’m just devastated and crushed,” said Joan Riley, of Merchantville. “But I’m happy for him. He’s an icon. He’s a saint walking around on earth. He’s wonderful.”
Rocky Wilson, of Camden, broke into tears.
“He always says that Camden has three things that make it a wonderful place,” Wilson said. “Walt Whitman, he loves Walt Whitman, the people, and the river. But I would add a fourth thing, and that’s Father Michael.”
Wilson said he had a health scare recently, and talking with Doyle kept his spirits up: “He’s a poet as well as a priest. He brings a poet’s feelings to whatever he does.”
What Doyle does, and has done, has made him the subject of several documentaries, including one narrated by actor Martin Sheen. He was also profiled on 60 Minutes.
His protests against the Vietnam War led to his arrest, along with others, for destroying draft cards at the Camden Post Office in 1970. The protesters were acquitted at trial the next year.
Doyle was ordained as a priest in Ireland in May 1959 and came to the United States and the Camden Diocese in September of that year.
His first assignment was at St. Raymond’s in Villas, Cape May County. After two years there, he taught religion at Villanova University.
He returned to New Jersey and was assigned to other Camden parishes: Saint Joseph, from 1968-72; Saint George, from 1972-73; and Saint Joan of Arc, from 1973-74, the Catholic Star Herald reported. The Camden Diocese’s newspaper called him “an eloquent advocate for the poor who is renowned for his personal charm.”
He’s also known for supporting the struggling community in which Sacred Heart is located. Across Broadway, there is a vacant lot where a black wooden marker grimly notes: “Anjanea Williams, Aged 20 Years, Shot to Death 1-20-11.”
Father Michael helped launch a food-sharing program that lets people in Camden get a bag of food on the fourth Saturday of every month.
In 1984, he and Sister Peg Hynes (who has since died) organized the nonprofit Heart of Camden Housing Corp., to buy and renovate houses for low-income people to purchase.
Susan Cedrone, a longtime church volunteer who lives in Delaware, said Doyle realized that by becoming homeowners, people would have more pride in where they lived and the community would become more stable.
Church members also say he is responsible for keeping both Sacred Heart and Sacred Heart School alive.
Every month, he sends out 5,000 letters to encourage people from all over to pay $300 to support one child’s tuition at the school.
“We have a saying in Ireland: ‘You can’t get blood from a stone,‘” Doyle said.
There is no way that Camden families can pay enough tuition to support the school. A sign with a red heart outside the church notes that the school is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
“Many of us came here because of his conviction of a liturgy that leads to justice,” Cedrone said. “You can’t just go to church and pray without doing something about what is going on in the world.”
Sacred Heart’s Masses follow the traditional Catholic calendar.
“Our Mass leads to justice,” Cedrone added. “If you have a good liturgy, you’re nourished by that liturgy and then it sends you forth to make things right in the world.”
About three or four years ago, after Doyle had surgery, Father Mike McCue, an oblate of St. Francis de Sales in Camden, began assisting with Mass.
“We all knew it was coming, but it’s still sad,” Lesly D’Ambola said of Doyle’s retirement.
Many derived some relief that he plans to remain in the neighborhood.
The parishioners were also pleased that Doyle’s successor is Father Vincent G. Guest, an immigration lawyer and the former director of the Camden Center for Law and Social Justice.
Doyle also seemed happy about that pick.