CAMDEN, NJ — Before Msgr. Michael Joseph Doyle became - to many in Camden - the heart of the city over the past half-century, he was “Mike Joe.”
It was what he’d heard called out as a lively boy ambling about the Rossduff community of Ireland located southeast of Waterford — what he described as “the fields” growing up.
“I liked to fix things when I was little, you’d always see me with a hammer in my hand,” Doyle, 85, told TAPinto Camden at the Sacred Heart Church on Tuesday. “I did a lot of things for my father and mother. Fix gates or make doors for the barn, that sort of stuff.”
Doyle’s tender personality is palpable, taking his time to fully immerse himself in a moment he is recalling before communicating anything at all. But he won’t let the quiet linger for too long, suddenly excited by a memory.
“You’d get a boiled egg on your birthday, that was it! We’d get very little on Christmas too because we didn’t have a lot of money,” Doyle shared. “But I didn’t consider myself poor, we didn’t have much, but we were very happy.”
Tomorrow, Doyle will retire after serving for 46 years at the head of the waterfront south church.
But today his mind was elsewhere. On his mother, his father, his four siblings, his grandfather and the place that shaped him before he came to the South Jersey town he now calls home.
It was in Ireland that a life in the priesthood would find him at the age of 14.
He attended a nearby school started years prior - what at first were lectures given in barns and other makeshift classrooms before finding a proper building. There, Latin, Greek, English and Irish were taught, before students headed off to the seminary for six years.
“And then you came home when you were ordained,” he said.
For Doyle that occasion was marked in May 1959.
In September of that year, he came to the United States and was assigned St. Raymond's in Villas in Cape May County by the Camden Diocese.
Two years later, he went on to teach at Villanova University followed by his return to Camden in 1968 when he joined a number of local parishes: Saint Joseph (1968-72), Saint George (1972-73), and Saint Joan of Arc (1973-74).
The peaceful life he knew on that island in the North Atlantic held in stark contrast with Camden city when he joined the Sacred Heart as a pastor in 1974.
“You didn't see much success because there was the awful trouble of murders in this town. We used to put crosses in parks to show people the number,” Doyle remembered. “You’d see 70 white crosses in a green field. It would shake you up."
Since then, Doyle has been a stalwart advocate: launching the Heart of Camden Housing Corp. with Sister Peg Hynes (focused on home renovation and access for people who are low-income), keeping the church’s adjoining elementary school open, and helping to launch the South Camden Theatre Company.
He was also integral in kicking off a food distribution program that makes a bag of food accessible to families in need on every fourth Saturday of each month.
Freeholder Jeff Nash on behalf of the board called Doyle "a truly selfless champion of the city."
"Through crisis and tragedy, joy and celebration, Msgr. Doyle has changed countless lives and touched the hearts of thousands," he said upon hearing of the retirement.
"While it saddens us that Monsignor Doyle will be retiring his rest is well deserved," Mayor Frank Moran added.
Doyle’s retirement Wednesday won’t be a flashy send-off — perhaps a few neighbors will stop by to share in a meal - and he prefers it that way. The last mass he led in his role was Sunday, a joyous if prudent gathering given the coronavirus.
Doyle will also be moving “a few yards away” allowing him to continue helping congregants any way he can.
He also says he plans to continue writing letters - hundreds of which were collected in the book, “It’s a Terrible Day...Thanks Be To God” based on a saying his grandfather repeated when entering the house sopping wet from tending the farm on rainy days.
Each month, Doyle mails roughly 5,000 letters asking for support to maintain the Sacred Heart School - which today doesn’t just house Catholic students.
When Doyle steps down, Father Vincent Guest will be brought on. Guest will be moving over from Our Lady of Guadalupe in Lindenwold.
The former director of Camden Center for Law and Social Justice, Guest is also an immigration lawyer who says he plans to be in the city for the long-haul.
“He's a good and capable person who is very generous,” Doyle said. “His legal expertise will also be important. I'm surely happy to have someone like Father Vincent coming here.”
In terms of what he hopes for Camden’s future, Doyle pointed to the continued improvement of housing and expansion of greenery.
“Wherever it’s inadequate I want to see that it gets better,” he said.
And almost as an afterthought, Doyle discussed the retirement itself.
“Well, you're supposed to retire in my job when you get to be 70,” he said, laughing. “I didn't rush see. I’m 85...will turn 86 in November and I’m just thankful to have my health...to be sitting here talking to you.”