Monsignor Michael Doyle, pastor, peace activist, poet and advocate for Camden and its people, has died at the age of 88
Monsignor Michael J. Doyle, 88, an Irish-born Catholic priest who became one of Camden’s most eloquent and effective advocates, died Friday at his home across from Sacred Heart Church, the borough where he spent nearly half a century been a pastor for a long time.
Father Doyle, who was diagnosed with jaw cancer in 2016, retired in 2020 and after contracting COVID-19 about two months ago, he was recovering at a Cherry Hill nursing facility. But he wanted to get back to his humble townhouse, where he enjoyed watching kids coming and going from Sacred Heart School, and he did two weeks ago.
“He longed to come home,” Teresa Reader, Sacred Heart’s longtime business and office manager, said Friday.
“He touched people’s hearts in a way that people aren’t used to,” she said. “It has been a privilege to work for such a lovely, kind and loving man.”
Former Camden Mayor Dana Redd, now CEO of Camden Community Partnership, has known Father Doyle since she was a student at Sacred Heart. After the death 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 lasted for many years,” she said.
“Father Doyle was an angel who loved Camden with all his heart and soul,” Redd said. “We were blessed to have him.”
Camden County Commissioner Jeff Nash described Father Doyle as “a true philanthropist who has 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.”
Father Doyle, who once said becoming a pastor at Camden was the “greatest gift that could ever have been given to me,” was vigilant and communicative until October 14, when he suffered a stroke and was placed in a hospice.
Late last week, friends, community members and officials made a pilgrimage to the block of Jasper Street, renamed Michael Doyle Lane in 2018.
“He had courage and conviction,” said Father Doyle’s niece, Geraldine Dobson, who had flown over from Ireland with her sister, Rosemarie Cusack, to see her uncle before he died.
“He had tenacity and perseverance and also real courage,” Dobson said.
Among the visitors was Sean Dougherty, who directed the 2008 documentary Poet of Poverty about Father Doyle. Dougherty also filmed and released video of a prayer service outside Father Doyle’s house last Sunday.
Father Doyle and his ministry were also 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 the students “were inspired by Father Doyle to do their part to make the world a better place.”
Father Doyle’s visitors tried to shake hands with 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 hold or whisper in his ear.
“In a way, we knew [his death] was getting closer,” said Dougherty, who lives in West Deptford. “But it seemed like he was going to be here forever.”
Father Doyle oversaw a complete restoration of Sacred Heart Church and its artwork that took several decades and in 1986 founded Heart of Camden, a non-profit organization that has renovated and sold 250 homes in what is now Waterfront South.
Father Doyle also revived and supported the community’s K-8 school; His elegantly written monthly letters to thousands of donors and supporters worldwide typically raised $1 million annually. He collected and published the letters in a 2002 volume entitled It’s a horrible day – thank God.
“I was so happy to see him last week and to sit by his side and explain to him that what he did meant so much to me,” said Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Anthony Giacchino, who works with Sacred Heart grew up.
Father Doyle’s support was also instrumental in the creation of the Waterfront South Theatre, the Nick Virgilio Writers House and the Camden FireWorks arts center in a neighborhood once slated for large-scale demolition.
Father Doyle, a personable priest with a tasty accent, knew how to get things done in a city where political and other obstacles seemed insurmountable. In the 1990s, he initiated a campaign to pressure Camden County Public Utilities to install odor controls and create parks to mitigate the impact of the regional treatment plant on residents of Waterfront South.
“Michael used the phrase ‘throw your hat over the fence’ when speaking of projects to revitalize Waterfront South,” said Henry Brann, one of the leaders of the effort to build the Writers House on a corner lot that had been vacant for decades .
“He [said] We had to throw that hat [and] explain that we would build a writers house. We were in disbelief,” said Brann, a longtime Sacred Heart parishioner who lives in Philadelphia. “We had no means, no resources, it was a moonshot. But Father Doyle’s vision encouraged our group…[and] the Writers House opened in 2018.”
Michael John Doyle was born on November 3, 1934 in the farming village of Rossduff, County Longford, Ireland. His family made a living mainly by selling eggs. Later, Father Doyle would often say that although there were no books in the house, many conversations took place.
He studied for the priesthood at St Peter’s Seminary in County Wexford, where he was ordained 3 May 1959. Recruited by the Camden Diocese, he came to America in September to teach at Camden Catholic High School.
Father Doyle also taught at Villanova University, where he earned a master’s degree in education in 1962 and later served as an assistant pastor in diocesan parishes in Cape May County and the city of Camden, including St. Joan of Arc in the city’s Fairview neighborhood.
“I don’t know if he ever had anything other than the priesthood in mind,” said Pat Mulligan, who grew up with Father Doyle in Rossduff and remembers him as “someone with strong convictions, a strong Christian belief in peace and justice . ”
Appointed pastor of Sacred Heart Church in 1974, Father Doyle often said he was unsure whether the appointment was a reward or a punishment. Just a year earlier, he and other members of the “Camden 28,” a group of anti-war activists who broke into the city’s federal courthouse to destroy draft committee files in 1971, had been acquitted of all charges.
“Michael wasn’t sure why he was sent to Sacred Heart,” Mulligan said. “The church was as low as it could get at that time. The church had been beautiful but it was really collapsing and the houses in the area were collapsing.”
“But because of his inspiration, his teaching, and his skill … people from all over the Philadelphia area started coming into the church,” Mulligan said. “He attracted a lot of people who were looking for something.”
Mezzo-soprano Barbara Dever said her operatic career and soul were nurtured at Sacred Heart and by Father Doyle himself.
“So many people came to Sacred Heart because the music and liturgy were all inviting,” said Dever, who first met 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 also never lost his passionate commitment to peace and social justice.
Giacchino’s 2007 documentary, camden 28, is his favorite of the films he has made, he said. He uses it while teaching a course at Rutgers-New Brunswick on the arrest and trial of Father Doyle and his associates.
Giacchino spoke to Father Doyle about the teaching when he visited him in Camden last week. “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, Phylis O’Reilly, and eight nieces and nephews, all in Ireland.
Funeral arrangements are pending under the direction of Healey Funeral Homes in Haddon Heights.