Huddling against the bluster and rain of what could only be described as a classic Irish day, some 200 people gathered at the South Camden waterfront on Nov. 11 to rename Millennium Park the Michael J. Doyle Park and Fishing Pier.
The dedication honored Msgr. Doyle’s 35 years as pastor of Sacred Heart Church, just a few blocks away. He took over the parish on Nov. 11, 1974.
It was especially poignant that this milestone should be marked by the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority, with which Doyle has frequently tangled over the years. He relentlessly pushed the agency to reduce the odors plaguing the neighborhood from the sewage treatment plant, lamenting often that “this poor city” was the destination for the contents of almost every toilet flushed in Camden County — 58 million gallons a day.
CCMUA vice chairman Jim MacFarlane circulated a photograph of Doyle on his knees in prayer with a little girl while pouring a bottle of holy water into the plant.
“If that isn’t faith,” MacFarlane said with a smile, “I don’t know what is.”
The gathered dignitaries, who included Camden County Freeholder Ian Leonard and Camden mayor Gwendolyn Faison, said that Msgr. Doyle deserved the honor.
“As a kid, I was cynical about church,” Leonard said. “Then I met Michael Doyle, and said, ‘This is a church I can go to.’ He truly doesn’t care who you are, you could be a drug addict off the street, but you are welcome” at Sacred Heart.
Mostly, though, people talked about the fishing pier, first opened in 2002. Now, the bright blue sign proclaiming “Welcome to the Michael J. Doyle Park and Fishing Pier,” with a big arrow, stands at the corner of Ferry Avenue and Jackson Street, which snakes past the plant to the river.
“This is a small park with a big story,” said CCMUA deputy executive director Andrew Kricun. “It’s a story of dedication, vision, persistence and forgiveness.”
He said that Msgr. Doyle saw the Waterfront South neighborhood not as troubled, but as a “gift” to which he could dedicate his ministry. As for vision, “he could look over abandoned houses and smokestacks to see the river. He had the persistence to keep going until he made [the fishing pier] happen. And he had many reasons to distrust our agency, but when our agency worked to make amends, he gave us a chance. He had the ability to work with us.”
MacFarlane called it “swords into plowshares.” Even Herb Engelbert, CCMUA’s retired director and Doyle’s old nemesis, attended the ceremony. “I know how instrumental he’s been defending this neighborhood,” Engelbert said afterwards.
Faison presented Doyle with a commendation from the city recognizing his “loving leadership.”
In a short speech, Doyle said coming to Sacred Heart 35 years ago was “the great blessing of my life.”
When he was first assigned to East Camden in 1968, “I came to Mickle Street, walked past the abandoned factories and the weeds and the sumac trees until I got to the water’s edge. The stones were black from polluted water. From the first day I was here I always dreamed that…the people of Camden would see the water and see the river and know the beauty of the place they reside.”
He thanked the CCMUA. “I’m honored that this way to the water would bear my name.”
Camden resident Richard “Friday” Grayson, a retired ironworker, sat among the crowd. He didn’t even know the dedication was happening. He came to the pier because this is where he comes nearly every day.
“It’s where all the old guys come,” he said. “We fish, we barbecue, we keep the peace back here.
“It’s the best thing in Camden,” he added. “Kids come down here, too, to learn how to fish. The only reason people aren’t here today is because it’s raining.”
The rain stopped during a reception after the ceremony in the CCMUA administration building. And sure enough, people walking back to their cars could see a fisherman casting his line.