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‘An angel who loved Camden’: Msgr. Michael Doyle, 88, pastor, peace activist, and advocate for city and its people, dies

“He touched people’s hearts in a way people aren’t used to,” said a longtime coworker.

In 2018, Msgr. Michael Doyle greeted well-wishers at the former Millennium Park in Camden's Waterfront South area. The event marked the park's renaming as the Michael J. Doyle Park and Fishing Pier.
In 2018, Msgr. Michael Doyle greeted well-wishers at the former Millennium Park in Camden's Waterfront South area. The event marked the park's renaming as the Michael J. Doyle Park and Fishing Pier.Read moreAPRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer

Msgr. Michael J. Doyle, 88, an Irish-born Catholic priest who became one of Camden’s most eloquent and effective champions, died Friday at his home across from Sacred Heart Church, the city parish he pastored for close to half a century.

Diagnosed with cancer of the jaw in 2016, Father Doyle retired in 2020, and after contracting COVID-19 about two months ago, he had been recovering in a nursing care facility in Cherry Hill. But he wanted to return to his modest rowhouse where he enjoyed seeing children come and go to Sacred Heart School and did so two weeks ago.

“He longed to come home,” Teresa Reader, the longtime business and office manager at Sacred Heart, said Friday.

“He touched people’s hearts in a way people aren’t used to,” she said. “It’s been a privilege to work for such a gracious, kind, and loving man.”

Former Camden Mayor Dana Redd, now CEO of the Camden Community Partnership, had known Father Doyle since she was a student at Sacred Heart. Following the deaths of her parents in 1976, “Father Doyle and the Sacred Heart community embraced my brother and I, and our family, with an outpouring of love and support that has lasted many years,” she said.

“Father Doyle was an angel who loved Camden with all of his heart, with all of his soul,” Redd said. “We were blessed to have him.”

Camden County Commissioner Jeff Nash described Father Doyle as “a true humanitarian who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of Camden City residents” for more than 50 years.

“His impact on Camden City has been remarkable,” Nash said in a statement. “Without him, this community would not be where it is today.”

Said the Rev. Vincent Guest, Sacred Heart’s pastor: “Our entire parish family mourns the death of Father Michael, but we also thank God for the gift of his life. ... He will be remembered by many as a peace advocate, a war protester, a community organizer, and a home builder. But in his heart, he was always a parish priest.”

‘The greatest gift’

Father Doyle, who once said that becoming a pastor in Camden was the “greatest gift I could ever have been given,” was alert and communicative until Oct. 24, when he suffered a stroke and was placed on hospice care.

In recent days, friends, parishioners, and public officials were making pilgrimages to the block of Jasper Street that was renamed Michael Doyle Lane in 2018.

“He had courage and conviction,” said Father Doyle’s niece Geraldine Dobson, who with her sister Rosemarie Cusack flew over from Ireland to see their uncle before he died.

“He had persistence and perseverance and real guts, as well,” Dobson said.

Among the visitors was Sean Dougherty, who made the 2008 documentary Poet of Poverty about Father Doyle. Dougherty also shot and posted a video of a prayer service outside Father Doyle’s house last Sunday.

Father Doyle and his ministry also were the centerpiece of a documentary by filmmaker Douglas Clayton, Heart of Camden, released in 2021. Clayton, who lives in Florida, said that he uses the film as a teaching tool in a leadership development program and that students “have been inspired by Father Doyle to do their bit to improve the world.”

Father Doyle’s visitors sought to hold the hand or whisper in the ear of the priest who had inspired tens of thousands of ordinary people — and more than a few celebrities — to help repair and restore Sacred Heart Church, the surrounding neighborhood, and the city itself.

“At some level we knew [his death] was getting closer and closer,” said Dougherty, who lives in West Deptford. “But it seemed like he would be here forever.”

A lifetime of work in Camden

Father Doyle oversaw a complete restoration of Sacred Heart Church and its artworks, which took several decades, and in 1985 established Heart of Camden, a nonprofit community development corporation that has renovated and sold 250 homes in what is now called the Waterfront South neighborhood. Father Doyle wanted us to not just build houses, but a neighborhood people consider home, with schools, parks, and the arts,” said Carlos Morales, Heart of Camden’s executive director.

“We need to continue that,” he said. “That’s how we honor him.”

Father Doyle also reinvigorated and sustained the parish’s K-8 school; his elegantly written monthly letters to thousands of donors and supporters worldwide typically netted $1 million annually. He collected and published the letters in a 2002 volume titled It’s a Terrible Day — Thanks Be to God.

“I was so happy to see him last week and sit by his side and explain to him that what he did meant so much to me,” said Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Anthony Giacchino, who in 2014 began work on a biographical film about Doyle entitled ‘Bit by Bit.’

Father Doyle’s support also was instrumental in the creation of the Waterfront South Theatre, the Nick Virgilio Writers House, the Camden FireWorks arts center, and the Camden Shipyard & Maritime Museum ― all in a neighborhood once targeted for wholesale demolition.

A personable priest with a mellifluous brogue, Father Doyle knew how to get things done in a city where political and other obstacles could seem insurmountable. In the 1990s he inspired a campaign to pressure the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority to install odor control and create parks to mitigate the impact of its regional wastewater treatment plant on the residents of Waterfront South.

“Michael used the phrase ‘throw your hat over the fence’ when speaking of projects to revive Waterfront South,” said Henry Brann, a leader of efforts to build the Writers House in a corner property that had been vacant for decades.

“He [said] we had to throw that hat [and] declare that we would build a Writers House. We were incredulous,” said Brann, a longtime Sacred Heart parishioner who lives in Philadelphia. “We had no means, no resources, it was a moon shot. But Father Doyle’s vision emboldened our group ... [and] the Writers House opened in 2018.”

‘Always about hope’

Michael Joseph Doyle was born Nov. 3, 1934, in the farming hamlet of Rossduff, County Longford, Ireland. His family made a living mostly by selling eggs. Later, Father Doyle often said that while there were no books in the house, there was plenty of conversation.

He studied for the priesthood at St. Peter’s Seminary in County Wexford, where he was ordained May 31, 1959. He was recruited by the Diocese of Camden and arrived in America that September, and taught at Camden Catholic and Holy Spirit high schools.

Father Doyle also taught at Villanova University, where he earned a master’s degree in education in 1962. He also served as an assistant pastor at diocesan parishes in Cape May County and in the City of Camden, including St. Joan of Arc in the city’s Fairview section.

“I don’t know that he ever had anything other than the priesthood in his mind,” said Pat Mulligan, who grew up with Father Doyle in Rossduff and remembers him as “someone with strong convictions, strong Christian beliefs in peace and justice.”

Father Doyle was named pastor of Sacred Heart Church in 1974 and often said he wasn’t sure if the appointment was a reward or a punishment. Just a year earlier, he and other members of the “Camden 28,” a group of antiwar activists who in 1971 broke into the federal courthouse in the city to destroy draft board records, had been acquitted of all charges.

“Michael wasn’t sure why he had been sent to Sacred Heart,” Mulligan said. “The parish at the time was just about as low as it could go. The church had been beautiful, but it was really falling down, and houses in the area were falling down.”

“But because of his inspiration and teaching and ability ... people started coming to the parish from all over metropolitan Philadelphia,” Mulligan said. “He attracted a lot of people who were looking for something.”

The mezzo-soprano Barbara Dever said her operatic career, as well as her soul, was nurtured at Sacred Heart and by Father Doyle himself.

So many people came to Sacred Heart because the music and the liturgy were inviting to all,” said Dever, who first encountered Father Doyle when he was a religion teacher at Camden Catholic High School and has sung professionally around the world.

“Michael was always about hope,” she said. “He wanted Camden to be a sign of hope.”

Father Doyle never lost his fierce commitment to peace and social justice, either.

Giacchino’s 2007 documentary, The Camden 28, is his favorite among the films he’s made, he said. He uses it while teaching a course at Rutgers-New Brunswick about the arrest and trial of Father Doyle and his fellow protesters.

Giacchino talked to Father Doyle about the class while he visited him in Camden late last month. “I told him, ‘The spirit of the Camden 28 lives on,’ and he squeezed my hand,” Giacchino said.

“I know he heard that.”

Father Doyle is survived by a sister, Phyllis O’Reilly, and eight nieces and nephews, all in Ireland.

Funeral arrangements are pending under the direction of Healey Funeral Homes in Haddon Heights.