When he was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Camden on May 26, 1983, at Saint Lawrence Church in Lindenwold, 53-year-old Cornelius “Neil” Francis Lambert marked two firsts in the Catholic Community of South Jersey: the first and only blind priest in the Diocese of Camden and its only widower.
This priest’s winding, faithful and earthly road ended on Jan. 13, when he died at age 89.
Before his death, the retired priest had been In-Residence at Cherry Hill’s Saint Mary Center (formerly Saint Mary Catholic Home).
A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Father Lambert first developed eye trouble in elementary school, which was shortly diagnosed as retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that causes slow deterioration of vision, and is uncurable and untreatable.
Despite this diagnosis, Father Lambert continued his education, ultimately receiving a bachelor’s degree in social studies from Fordham University, N.Y., and a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J.
While working in Newark as a rehabilitation counselor, he met Nancy, who had lost her eyesight due to diabetes. On Dec. 21, 1968, they were married in Westfield. Almost four years later, she died.
In September 1978, Father Lambert entered Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, and close to five years after, he was ordained.
Father Lambert served as parochial vicar at Saint Agnes, Blackwood (1983-90, 1992-98); Maris Stella, Avalon (1990); and Saint Isidore, Vineland, where he served from 1998 until his retirement in 1992.
After his retirement, he was In-Residence at Saint Rose of Lima, Haddon Heights (2005-09); Maris Stella (2009-10); and Saint Brendan the Navigator, Avalon (2010-16).
Msgr. John Frey, now retired, first met Father Lambert at Saint Rose of Lima, where the former was pastor. Later, when Msgr. Frey was assigned as pastor of Saint Brendan the Navigator, Father Lambert followed his friend.
“Nothing really stopped him,” Msgr. Frey recalled about his brother priest, who memorized the prayers for every Mass he celebrated.
“Father Neil was a pleasant man,” he added. A devoted Eagles fan, he would make game predictions from the pulpit after each Sunday service.
A funeral Mass was celebrated Jan. 21 at Our Lady of Hope Parish, Saint Agnes Church in Blackwood. He was laid to rest alongside his late wife at Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Berlin. Contributions in his memory would be appreciated to Saint Vincent de Paul Society of any of the following Parishes: Our Lady of Hope Parish in Blackwood, Saint Brendan the Navigator Parish in Avalon, or Christ the Good Shepherd Parish in Vineland.