Sitting at the head of a long wooden table inside Sacred Heart Church on Ferry Avenue in Camden, Monsignor Michael Doyle quietly considers his city’s struggles with violence, crime and drug abuse—the symptoms of poverty and urban decay that have surrounded him since he arrived here as a young priest in 1959.
“If there’s a struggle, then excellence is possible—and victory is possible,” he says. His voice rings with the lilting brogue of his native Ireland, lending both whimsy and solemnity to every pronouncement.
Doyle’s commitment to Camden has earned the monsignor, now 77, an almost mythic reputation. Since 1974, he’s been pastor of Sacred Heart and is involved in the operation of its namesake grammar school in Camden’s troubled Waterfront South neighborhood. Doyle raises funds annually to keep the school running for its 230 students, holds mass every Sunday for a congregation of about 400, orchestrates a weekly dinner for poor families and has even attracted a number of young people from the suburbs to begin ministries of their own in Camden.
But Father Doyle is more than a priest. He is also a poet who composes a hand-written letter every month to a list of more than 5,000 recipients—friends, colleagues and strangers. The letters, which were adapted into Poet of Poverty, a 2008 documentary narrated by Martin Sheen, are stunning and often heartbreaking reflections on his life and work in the beleaguered city.
“I wish you could see Camden and see the lovely little children who are trying to grow up here in ugly situations—like so many flowers in fields of old tires and broken bottles,” reads a Doyle letter from May 1986. “Oh, if I had a wish it would be that the world of little children would be soft and beautiful as our tender God first intended—before we tore His dreams with our greed and neglect.”
Doyle is also an activist who in 1971 was arrested (and later acquitted) after he and a group of 27 others attempted to break into the Camden draft board office and destroyed conscription records to protest the Vietnam War. Today, passionate political ruminations still season Doyle’s observations, and he often makes reference to “the insane waste of militarism,” the damning futility of America’s war on drugs and the socioeconomic inequities that fuel Camden’s ills.
And he is an advocate for the power of art and reconstruction. During his time in Camden, Doyle established Heart of Camden, which has rehabbed more than 200 neighborhood homes and built a small playhouse. He currently is working on turning an abandoned firehouse into a neighborhood art center.
“We have this little motto here that art will save us, because art is the inner spirit expressed,” he says. “Because of the poor place it is, there is always a strong desire in Camden to announce, ‘I am here. I see. I know. I express. We are not dead. We’re alive.’”
Click here to read about Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd’s efforts to save a troubled city.