Msgr. Robert McDermott spun the steering wheel of his cramped tan Toyota and maneuvered through the Baldwin's Run affordable-housing development in East Camden. The streets looked like suburban Cherry Hill - neat, attractive, no graffiti, nothing like the drug-infested hell they replaced.
For a quarter-century, the Catholic priest has performed a ministry of rehabilitation, stitching together the tattered neighborhoods of his native city.
In East Camden - home to McDermott's St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral parish - the Baldwin's Run project he championed has doubled the area's property values, according to one city official.
McDermott, 66, who is also vicar general of the Camden Diocese, will be honored by the parish tomorrow for his efforts in the city and for the 40th anniversary of his ordination.
Like Msgr. Michael Doyle of the Waterfront South section, whose Sacred Heart parish also will honor him tomorrow, McDermott is among a group of activist clerics who have refused to abandon Camden despite the departure of money and congregants to the suburbs.
To serve "in Camden as a Catholic priest is pure Gospel," said the priest, who previously spent 15 years at St. Vincent Pallotti in Haddon Township and St. Luke in Stratford. "It's taking the church to where the needs of the people are, instead of waiting for the people to come."
Those familiar with the relentless, decades-long push by McDermott and his lay cohorts say that recognition is long overdue for the man widely known as Msgr. Bob.
City Councilman Frank Moran put forward a resolution to name a street for the cleric. Church Street will officially become McDermott Street when its sign is unveiled tomorrow, he said.
"He is very humble and truly a servant of the people," Moran said. "He's done things for them that no one knows about, from paying their utility bills to putting their kid through school."
McDermott and his five siblings grew up in St. Joseph parish, near Dudley and Carman Streets. He attended its grade school, was an altar boy at the rebuilt church's 1952 dedication, and underwent ordination there.
Memories of the thriving blue-collar city inspire him to make life better for those living there today, said McDermott, who returned to Camden in 1985, able to battle its deterioration.
In 2005, the St. Joseph's Carpenter Society, a parish group McDermott founded, managed to get the rat-a-tat gunfire of East Camden's violent Westfield Acres public housing replaced with the sound of jackhammers, bulldozers, and chain saws.
The $100 million Baldwin's Run project, paid for with federal and state aid, was proposed by the society to a national program that financed the best ideas.
"It was Msgr. McDermott who fueled the application process," Moran said.
The nonprofit group worked with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the developer Pennrose Properties to raze Westfield and boarded-up residences in the 32d Street neighborhood.
As he led a reporter on a tour of Baldwin's Run, McDermott's community pride was obvious. More than 500 owner-occupied and rental homes with porches, driveways, and flower-filled planters stand in the mixed-income development, completed in 2007.
McDermott isn't "a saber-rattler. He's a doer," said U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D., Camden).
Many people come to Camden starry-eyed with idealism and leave frustrated and hopeless, Andrews said. "Bob stays. He doesn't seem to get fatigued the way others do," he said.
Andrews also noted McDermott's work as a founding member of Camden Churches Organized for People, a federation of 30 faith-based organizations that has taken up issues such as crime and immigrant settlement.
Begun in 1988, the group lobbies politicians to ensure that Camden residents have a say in the city's revitalization.
McDermott's successes have been as small as organizing the campaign to win sewer-bill rebates for those living near the malodorous sewage plant, Andrews said.
And they've been as large as helping to land $175 million in state aid through the 2002 Camden Recovery Act.
"Msgr. Bob framed it in moral and practical terms," Andrews said. "He represents the best of his faith: service and compassion."
McDermott had always looked forward to becoming a pastor. When St. Joseph became available, he jumped at the opportunity. In 2005, he was appointed vicar general.
As a boy, McDermott said, he was inspired by his parish priests, but had no plans to follow in their footsteps. The Camden High basketball player felt only a "flicker of a vocation."
"I fought it," he said, but the idea of the priesthood nagged at him. His only recourse, he thought, was to take bold action. After high school graduation in 1960, McDermott mustered his courage and plunged into the vocation.
He graduated from St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore in 1965 with a bachelor's degree and later received a second bachelor's degree and a master's from Catholic University of America. He was ordained 40 years ago tomorrow.
McDermott, whose 6-foot, 220-pound frame makes him look like a bespectacled linebacker, calls his success in Camden partly "dumb luck."
He founded the Carpenter Society the year he arrived at the interracial parish, which now includes large populations of Latino, Vietnamese, and Cambodian church members. The society, 2000 winner of the prestigious President's Service Award, redevelops abandoned properties and sells new or rehabilitated homes to area residents.
Its achievements include the 1993 creation of the Campbell Soup Homeowner Academy to teach low- and moderate-income families financial and home-maintenance skills. More than 6,700 people have been "rehabbed" through the program.
As the society has flourished, average housing values in East Camden have soared from about $30,000 to between $70,000 and $80,000, said Councilman Moran.
"We've done about 850 owner-occupied and rental units," McDermott said. Some homes the society has rehabbed are on the fringe of the parish, pushing blight farther out.
"He's helped a lot people," Doreen Jones, 52, said of McDermott.
Jones became a homeowner 15 years ago due to the intercession of the Carpenter Society. She said her entire North 28th Street neighborhood had been transformed by McDermott and his faith in the power of community.
"The drug dealers try to get the streets back, but each year, we clean up and revitalize," Jones said. "I believe, when people own stuff, they treat it better."