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Camden's Poet Priest

Monsignor Michael Doyle of Sacred Heart Church on Ferry Avenue in Camden is more than just a priest.

Posted June 11, 2012 by Nick DiUlio

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Monsignor Michael Doyle
Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.

Monsignor Michael Doyle and Dana L. Redd
Monsignor Michael Doyle embraces Dana L. Redd at her 2010 swearing-in ceremony.

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.


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Comments
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The mentioned "small playhouse" is a 96 seat state-of-the-art theatre that is one of the finest in the Delaware Valley. The resident theatre company also started in the basement of the Sacred Heart Church and now produces professional theatre in this "small playhouse" drawing audience members from across 4 counties in New Jersey, several counties and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York. This all because Michael Doyle once asked our Producing Artistic Director and playwright, Joseph M. Paprzycki why he didn’t do any plays in Camden. That was 8 seasons ago.

Posted by: Robert Bingaman, Haddon Township | Jun 27, 2013 23:07:02 PM |

Msgr. Doyle

I was on-sides with him until I read about vandalizing the draft office. That turned him into a low-rent Berrigan brother.

Posted by: Eileen Cassidy, New Canaan | Jun 28, 2013 19:21:59 PM |

Msgr. Doyle

That comment about the Berrigans is not my wife’s, it’s mine.

Posted by: George Cassidy, New Canaan | Jun 28, 2013 19:25:27 PM |

George and Eileen Cassidy about Michael Doyle

Really crazy how people can look at one aspect of someone’s life and change their opinion of him.
Michael has done so much for people with wonderful Catholic Worship, offering education, housing, speaking out on violence, advocate for the poor, and much more. As history turns out, Vietinam war was a totally unjust war and Fr. Doyle was right to speak out and take action. Really George and Eileen, what have you done in your life to be so judegemental. I hope you have been as Christian.

Posted by: Thomas Brown, Cinnaminson | Jun 30, 2013 23:50:35 PM |

Father Doyle

If you want to understand Father Doyle, I believe you should visit his church for Mother’s Day. His
sermon and reflections are beyond inspiring.

While tough enough to tackle entrenched poverty, he does so with a kind heart and an appreciation for human nature.

He is an amazing Catholic priest. Camden is very
fortunate to have this tireless advocate for justice for the poor and misunderstood.

Posted by: Elizabeth, Marlton | Dec 24, 2013 15:13:35 PM |

Father Doyle

If you want to understand Father Doyle, I believe you should visit his church for Mother’s Day. His
sermon and reflections are beyond inspiring.

While tough enough to tackle entrenched poverty, he does so with a kind heart and an appreciation for human nature.

He is an amazing Catholic priest. Camden is very
fortunate to have this tireless advocate for justice for the poor and misunderstood.

Posted by: Elizabeth, Marlton | Dec 24, 2013 15:13:43 PM |

play

Will you be having a play sometime in the near future and if so what is the name of the play and when will it be runnning.

Posted by: Theresa & Vince Wall, Brooklawn | Jan 28, 2014 19:47:19 PM |



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