The East Camden that Robert McDermott knew growing up on Carman Street in the 1950s was under siege when “Father Bob” came back to the neighborhood as pastor of his former parish in 1985.
Crack cocaine was laying waste to lives, gangs ruled entire blocks of abandoned homes, and St. Joseph’s School on Westfield Avenue was rumored to be closing. During one of his first Christmas services, the sanctuary of the St. Joseph’s Pro-Cathedral on Federal Street was almost without heat and nearly empty.
“Now that church is a vibrant community,” his youngest sister, Denise McDermott Culkin, said Monday — the day after Msgr. McDermott died, at 76, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was ordained in 1969 and retired in 2014, having built a diverse and active parish and a half-dozen major programs providing educational, housing, and human services in the neighborhood and beyond.
“Msgr. McDermott was a very good man, a true servant with the heart of Christ,” said the Rev. Nicholas Dudo, vicar for clergy in the Diocese of Camden. “He was an exemplary priest.”
Bishop Dennis J. Sullivan will officiate at Msgr. McDermott’s funeral. Arrangements by the Blake-Doyle Funeral Home (blake-doyle.com) in Collingswood are expected to be finalized Tuesday afternoon.
"He was the great priest of Camden,” said Msgr. Michael Doyle of the city’s Sacred Heart Church, a friend and ally of Msgr. McDermott’s for decades. “Camden has lost its star.”
Praise, grief, and gratitude for Msgr. McDermott, whom I knew and deeply respected for more than 30 years, poured in on social media and from elsewhere Monday. “The seeds of change he planted in Camden will live on … in the lives of countless people for years to come,” said Joe Fleming, who worked alongside Msgr. McDermott in the influential grassroots group Camden Churches Organized for People during the 1980s and ’90s.
Family, friends, and fans cited programs of Msgr. McDermott’s ministry, such as the St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society, which renovates and builds housing, the St. Joseph’s Child Development Center and the revived St. Joseph’s School as transformative for East Camden. Joseph’s House, in Waterfront South, provides shelter for people citywide who are experiencing homelessness.
“The St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society has rebuilt more than 1,100 units" of housing, Camden County Freeholder Director Louis J. Cappelli said in a statement. “Basically, Father Bob [delivered] the dream of home ownership to hundreds of individuals … [but] he never gave away anything for free, and each new homeowner had to earn it."
Rosa Ramirez, who lived in East Camden when she and Msgr. McDermott became allies in the 1980s, was among those who became emotional talking about him.
“He did so much for the people of Camden,” she said. “Anything he could do to help us, he did. That church loved him, and we still love him. To me, he was my pastor and my friend. His death hurts a lot.”
Msgr. McDermott was direct and down-to-earth — a guy from the neighborhood whose clerical collar posed no barrier, a lifelong athlete who enjoyed basketball, golf, and other sports. “My brother was a fierce competitor,” said Culkin, one of his four surviving siblings.
“We played tennis, and he sort of ran me off the court,” said Steve Honeyman, a organizational development consultant in Montgomery County. “He also had the imagination to look at the community and see possibilities.”
At St. Joseph’s School, Msgr. McDermott “was a rock star,” said Kathleen Dianora Duffy, who taught there a decade ago and is now an early literacy specialist with the Philadelphia School District. “He conferred with every single eighth grader about every report card, to hold them accountable and make sure they were on a path to success. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in 25 years in education.”
Jim Catrambone is executive director of the Joseph Fund, which Msgr. McDermott founded as a way to raise money for and sustain the other programs.
“His thing was about building structures to address the injustices in Camden,” Catrambone said. “He knew there needed to be a structure to replace him.”
Even if no one person ever could.