Posted by: Bill Tracy | December 20, 2010

How History Gets Distorted

We saw children on fire.

What do you do when a child’s on fire – in a war that was a mistake?

Write a letter?

-Michael Doyle, Camden, NJ

If you’ve never heard of Camden, New Jersey, maybe you’re not paying attention — or you prefer not to. These days Camden makes all the bad city lists – most dangerous, poorest, most drug-drenched, lowest educational achievement, most environmentally polluted and on and on. Name any reason that makes a place bad for children and other living things and Camden will probably top your list. But it wasn’t always so, and some of the city’s history is preserved – but sadly not all of that history.

Camden, NJ

The classic view of Camden, New Jersey in 2010. Image Copyright and courtesy of The New York Times

Camden resident, Phil Cohen, publishes an extraordinary personal Web site devoted to his hometown. It has everything from the industrial wonders of Campbell Soup, RCA Victor, Esterbrook Pen, R. M. Hollingshead and New York Shipbuilding Corporation to origins of street names and histories of diners and bars. There are thousands of pages on the site and they can take you to obscure and surprising photographs and documents. Browsing there I recently found a friend’s ancestor who had founded the Jewish community in Camden. This small city has a stature in history to rival that of any place in the United States (Take that, Philadelphia!). Spend some time on this Web site, and you’ll be amazed. However, conspicuous by his absence is Rev. Michael Doyle, pastor of Sacred Heart Church at Broadway and Ferry for the past 36 years.

Rev. Michael Doyle

Rev. Michael Doyle, pastor of Sacred Heart Church, Camden, NJ

I will argue that Michael Doyle has as big a place in Camden history as any of the nearly 2000 people Cohen documents as “people of note” in the city’s history – naming everyone from beauticians to politicians to industrialists to petty criminals. Following are a few notable achievements in Camden from this shy and gentle priest from Ireland:

  • Loved and revered pastor of Sacred Heart Church for 36 years. The National Catholic Reporter newspaper calls him a “legendary pastor.” Were it not for Doyle this parish would have disappeared years ago as its parishioner base virtually vanished when the “middle class” evacuated Camden. Doyle expanded his parish community beyond the parish borders and enabled people from the suburbs to have a place where they can come and honor the poor of Camden. He has found a hundred different ways to connect an affluent, suburban congregation with Camden’s poor folk in ways that could never be done in a suburban church.
  • Sustained the operation of a fine Catholic elementary school in spite of almost no Catholic children in the parish – and poverty among the caring parents who send their children to the school. The school opened around 1920 and was once one of six Catholic parish elementary schools in Camden. It is now the only one, and 250 children who attend each year can thank Michael Doyle for his imagination, passion and love. Worldwide, he finds donors willing to “sponsor” a child, and those donations cover most of the million dollars it costs to run what he calls “our little school.”
  • Facilitated the Heart of Camden, an independent community development organization that works at making home ownership a reality, among other community-building and community service functions.
  • His presence, I argue, is responsible for a small revival of the Arts in Camden – an artist in residence, a community theatre. And I understand they’re now building a gymnasium so the children have a place to burn off their abundant energy. All this in a town that threatens to close its library for lack of funds and may now lay off half of its 400-member police force.
  • He was a courageous and leading participant in the “Camden 28.” This group opposed the Vietnam war, and in 1971 entered the Camden Draft Board to invalidate their records – to disrupt the evil of that war. One of the most famous and little-remembered jury trials in this country’s history ensued. All 28 were fully acquitted using a defense that set legal precedent – one that intimidates the FBI and other such agencies to this day.
Camden Waterfront

Camden waterfront showing the Aquarium in the early 1990s, one of the few tourist attractions in this poor city.

Over a year ago I wrote to Phil Cohen wondering how Michael Doyle could be overlooked on his Camden “People of Note” list. This was his response:

That being said, I’ll comment on Michael Doyle and the Camden 28…. is another thing entirely (sic). It will be a cold day in hell before I “honor” them for their treason…. and frankly, the blood of hundreds of thousands if not millions is on their hands. I’m not particularly impressed by Doyle’s actions since then, either, especially in regards to intentionally misleading statements made in regards to the sludge plant; and various other peccadilloes which I will not go into at this time.

The emotion in that statement convinced me there was no way to reasonably discuss this with Mr. Cohen, so I haven’t asked him to elaborate. Over the last year I’ve pondered that statement trying to understand what logic there might be. The “Camden 28” actions may surely have helped close down a war that was doomed from the start. I cannot make a leap to their peaceful protest causing millions more deaths. The only possibility I can imagine is that he blames Doyle and company for stopping a war that was intended to bring U.S. domination to the whole of southeast Asia. If such a thing had happened, perhaps Cambodian dictator Pol Pot may not have murdered millions in his country. That’s probably the only argument I can see Cohen offering to prop up support for his assertion. However, that long discredited “domino theory” of fighting Communism in southeast Asia was shown to be a cynical basis for a war of ill-gotten gains.

Cohen, through his Web site, does a great service to Camden and its venerable history. Amid what The Nation magazine called a “City of Ruins” in a recent article, Michael Doyle works every day to create a hope that this waterfront city can be revitalized and made human once again. All people who wish Camden well deserve to know about Michael Doyle and his open invitation to help in his efforts.

Christmas at Sacred Heart

Christmas at Sacred Heart

A fine starting point for anyone might be this Friday (December 24, 2010). Each year Sacred Heart has a Christmas  “Midnight Mass” (at 8 PM, Christmas eve, whimsically and rather conveniently). It’s one of the most magical and beautiful church services I’ve ever attended. Perhaps Phil Cohen could drop by. I know he’d be very welcome. Come early, Phil; you’ll find an SRO crowd.

Finally, I’ll close with this prayer said each day at Sacred Heart Church.

Prayer for Camden

Almighty God,

we praise you for all you have done.

Help us with all that you want us to do!

Come, Holy Creator,

and rebuild the City of Camden

so that we do not labor in vain without you.

Come, Holy Savior,

and heal all that is broken

in our lives and in our streets.

Come, Holy Spirit,

and inspire us with energy and willingness

to rebuild Camden City to your honor and glory.

Amen !

Peace be with you, Phil Cohen.


Christ Is Risen



  1. Bill,

    I have attended quite a few masses there over the years. My sister actually had the honor of being married in the Sacred Heart church…by the infamous Fr. Michael Doyle. Fr. Doyle has given his heart and soul to that community. There has been some change in other parts of the city also. Mt. Emphraim ave is having a come back:) The Elgin diner has reopened its doors. A lumber/home improvement company has opened, a couple of fast food restaurants. That hub of Camden is growing! Hopefully the revitalization of the ave. will keep going further down into the center of the city. Growing up my parents always shopped there. We always got our meat there from a butcher. I am in Camden frequently…and I do indeed see a change very slowly but definently for the better. Keep up the good word.

    Your friend M

  2. A fine tribute to a noble soul. Thanks for telling his story. I wish you peace and joy for Christmas and in the year to come. I’ve so enjoyed your essays.

  3. As a former parishioner and employee of Sacred Heart Church in Camden, I can only say things are not quite as they seem to be at the parish. I long for the day when a real reporter will cut through the “myth” that is Michael Doyle and write from facts, not simply recycle what has already been written. Untold millions of dollars have come through his hands from well-meaning people, but what has really been done in the neighborhood? A school with poor academics, a few houses rebuilt badly (until a state crackdown) by almost all free, volunteer labor, groceries given out once a month that the parish pays zero for and a theater in a place where you can’t buy fresh fruit or vegetables, but drugs and whores are plentiful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: