Pastor, cancer patient, arts patron

William Butler (from left), Kieshiya Davis and Ronja Butler greet Father Michael Doyle as he attends the ribbon-cutting for Camden Fireworks, the new arts center near Sacred Heart Church in Camden.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new arts center just a block from his church Friday evening was an event the Rev. Michael Doyle didn’t want to miss.

So he had friends push him in a wheelchair from Sacred Heart Church to the former firehouse turned Camden FireWorks  — another landmark that’s been brought back to life during his tenure in the city’s Waterfront South neighborhood.

“I could walk, but when I get inside I’ll have no place to sit,” said Doyle, 81, who  has undergone surgery and is beginning radiation treatment for cancer of the jaw.

‘It’s hard to be tied down so much,” he added. “But my mind is working. I have to trust God that I will come back to my strength.”

Doyle’s jaw is swollen, but his Irish brogue was as intact as his charm as he greeted wellwishers inside the gloriously restored Victorian structure.

It took six years, about 200 volunteers and $675,000 to transform the long-vacant city fire station on the 1800 block of South Broadway into gallery and studio space with soaring ceilings, exposed brick walls and handsome woodwork.

“I sat on the bench outside with the firemen in the evening when I first came here,” said Doyle, who became Sacred Heart’s pastor in 1974.

The brownstone chuch at Broadway and Ferry attracts the faithful from throughout the region. The charismatic Doyle has attracted support for Sacred Heart and its school, as well as for programs such as Heart of Camden. The nonprofit has renovated 350 Waterfront South houses and also was involved in the FireWorks project.

Within a block of the church, Heart of Camden also renovated the former Star movie theater into the Michael J. Doyle Fieldhouse, a recreation center drawing thousands of vistors a month. It helped make possible the construction of the brand new Waterfront South Theatre as well.

Camden FireWorks adds another bright spot to the budding arts district in the neighborhood, where Sacred Heart also has been the catalyst for creation of a writers house now under construction.

The facility will be named for Nick Virgilio, a Camden haiku master who was a great friend of the poetry loving pastor.

“That a wonderful quote from Dostoevsky that there are three things that will save the world: Truth, goodness and beauty,” Doyle said. “And if the first two fail, beauty will do it. That’s an article of faith around here.”
 

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