Eighty years ago, on May 3, 1938, the first bishop of Camden stepped off the Pennsylvania railroad station in Haddonfield and into South Jersey’s Catholic history.
Bartholomew J. Eustace, 50 years old, was born on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in New York, the son of Bartholomew and Elizabeth Eustace, Irish immigrants. Ordained a priest on Nov. 1, 1914, he served in the Archdiocese of New York at Blessed Sacrament Parish in New Rochelle and taught philosophy and liturgy at his alma mater, Saint Joseph Seminary in Dunwoodie, before the night of Dec. 15, 1937, when it was announced that he would be the first shepherd in the new Diocese of Camden.
Created six days before Eustace’s announcement as bishop, the new diocese, made up of the six southern counties of Atlantic, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem, was part of a restructuring of the Catholic Church in New Jersey.
The two previously existing dioceses in the state, Newark and Trenton, would no longer be part of the ecclesiastical province of New York, but now New Jersey itself would become an ecclesiastical province, with Newark as its metropolitan see. Furthermore, now there were four dioceses: the existing Newark and Trenton, and the new Camden and Paterson dioceses.
Arriving in Haddonfield, and making his way to Camden’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Bishop Eustace was now in charge of nearly 2,700 square miles, and its approximately 100,000 Catholics.
The faithful, comprising 49 parishes, 75 diocesan priests, and 11 religious priests, 31 mission churches, 30 elementary and five secondary schools, and five religious communities of men and 15 religious communities anxiously awaited his arrival by motorcade, with people lining Camden’s Market Street between Broadway and Seventh Street.
After the cathedral rector, Father Aloysius Quinlan, greeted Bishop Eustace, the new prelate imparted a blessing on the throng. Among the well-wishers was 86-year-old Mary Magee, the cathedral’s oldest living parishioner. As she took hold of his hand and kissed his ring, Bishop Eustace responded with, “God bless you, my dear lady.”
The next day, a sunny May 4, Bishop Eustace was installed the first bishop of Camden by Thomas J. Walsh, the Archbishop of Newark. Faithful packed the cathedral, while more gathered outside on the Camden streets, a loudspeaker their connection to the jubilant ceremony inside.
In his first remarks, Bishop Eustace expressed his fears but also his belief in God’s providence:
“Willingly I offer myself to serve you and that as completely as I can. If there be any of my hundred thousand children destined hereafter to suffer greatly, may I be that one. If of any some great sacrifice is about to be demanded, may I even now be asked to make it.”
He dedicated his new diocese to the Blessed Virgin Mary. “I command that as long as this Church of Camden exists it show by its devotion and love, and many expressions of both, its undying fealty to the Mother of God,” he said.
Closing his inaugural address to South Jersey’s faithful, after thanking his family and friends in his hometown Archdiocese of New York, he declared, “I transfer to the clergy and people of Camden my allegiance, my devotion, and my ministry — for by the ring I wear I am wedded to them and by the cross I bear I vow to be faithful leader, gentle father and true Bishop. Floreat Camdenum (May Camden Flourish)!
Joy in Camden but anxiety elsewhere in the world
Mary Elizabeth Eustace, 85, sat in the front pew of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Camden on May 4, 1938, with her son Arthur to see her other son — Bartholomew — installed as the first bishop of the newly-established Diocese of Camden.
‘“I imagine she’s just a little proud of me, now that I am a bishop,” the prelate admitted smilingly after the ceremony,” the New York Times reported the next day.
On the day the bishop was installed, the Times carried the news of less joyous happenings in the world — and indications of heavy responsibilities of a bishop.
One of the lead stories on the front page carried the news of “two outstanding dictators” — Mussolini and Hitler — meeting in Rome.
There was also a story about the growing conflict in Germany between the government and Christianity. The National Socialist Governor of Wuerttemberg publicly demanded the resignation of a Catholic bishop who didn’t vote in the Anschluss plebicite and Reichstag elections.
“Bishop Sproll does not recognize, it would seem, that Divine Providence has appointed Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist ideology to save our nation from the grim chaos of bolshevism,” the governor stated.
The Times reported, “The secret political police informed Bishop Sproll the day after the elections that if he remained in Wuerttemberg they could not ‘be responsible for his security’ — a formula that is equivalent to expulsion.”