Theater is converted to fieldhouse in Camden

An historic old movie theater, The Star at Broadway and Viola, is seeing new life as a neighborhood fieldhouse.

“I have always dreamed of a safe place for the children to bounce a ball,” said Msgr. Michael J. Doyle, the longtime Camden pastor for whom the fieldhouse will be named in a ceremony on Nov. 11, at 12:30 p.m.

“Just as they do in Cherry Hill and Chestnut Hill, these children need a good place to play,” Msgr. Doyle said. “I think I would have had a terrible time surviving the boring life of the seminary in Ireland, without the joy of playing Gaelic football and soccer. Camden’s young people are trying to grow up in a city that is not worthy of them. A state-of-the-art gym to play will greatly help many of them.”

The Michael J. Doyle Fieldhouse features a full-sized basketball court with bleachers for spectators, as well as meeting space and facilities for volleyball, yoga and other activities.

Basketball teams from Sacred Heart School will play league games there.  Students at the nearly 100-year-old school now also have their own gym for the first time in its history.

In addition, the gym has open times for 10-to-14 year olds and for older youth during the week.

“We have yoga classes open to anybody in the neighborhood,” said Helene Pierson, executive director of the Heart of Camden, which owns the building and oversaw its restoration. “And it is open to young people to come and use it after school and in the evenings.”

The event on Nov. 11 will honor Msgr. Doyle, who has been pastor of Sacred Heart Parish since 1974 and is one of Camden’s foremost activists and civic leaders. It will feature a concert and film honoring his achievements in improving the quality of life in and around the Sacred Heart neighborhood.

Msgr. Doyle helped found the Heart of Camden, which has provided homeownership opportunities for more than 200 low-income families over the past 25 years. Since he has been at Sacred Heart the Waterfront South neighborhood has also seen the establishment of a theater company with a new theater, a maritime museum celebrating Camden’s storied past as a shipbuilding center, a Center for Environmental Transformation, and an influx of young people with their own ministries.

The Star Theater, built in 1919 with 704 seats and a Moller Opus 2736 organ, had its heyday as a silent movie house in the 1920s. The live music accompanied the mostly cowboy movies shown at the theater, which could be watched several times a day for 10 cents.

The Star went through many uses after the end of the silent movies era.  When Msgr. Doyle became pastor in 1974, Sacred Heart Church owned the building and it housed the parish bingo.

But bingo failed and after the largely unused building was badly vandalized, Msgr. Doyle sold it for $1 to Jaycee Housing. It got started again as a daycare center and in 1984 was the site of the celebrating of the silver jubilee of Msgr. Doyle’s ordination. On that day 89-year-old Sacred Heart parishioner Margaret Kelly, who had played the piano in the Star as a young woman to accompany the silent movies, was there to play it again.

But Msgr. Doyle always regretted that the building was ruined in one weekend and vowed that one day it would rise to serve the neighborhood once again. Pierson decided to name the building after him in recognition of his tireless work to reclaim it for the neighborhood.

“It began with the silent movies but it will not be silent again,” said Msgr. Doyle, “The bounce of every ball will be a bounce of hope. This resurrection from the ruins is a bright note in Sacred Heart’s long-time anthem: We Call Camden to Life.”

The Heart of Camden’s offices are now also located in the building, which is 200 feet long and spans the entire block on Viola between Broadway and Filmore St.

The facility, rehabilitated at a cost of $1.1 million, is also serving as a community center.

“It’s a place to provide support and services that residents might not otherwise be able to afford,” said Pierson.  The facility is available for rental at reasonable rates and has already been the site of a wedding and several birthday parties.

The restoration of the building was funded through New Jersey State Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit funds from Campbell Soup, PSE&G, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and PNC Bank. The initial years of operating funds were raised from a gala held by a group of Moorestown women led by Ann Baiada and Kay Stuckey that featured rock star Jon Bon Jovi. The John and Mary Louise Scanlan Foundation has also been instrumental in contributing resources.

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