CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY
HISTORY OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
IN SOUTH JERSEY
following is derived from
Jesuits from Maryland Province took over Holy Name Catholic Church in
North Camden in 1983 they were retracing in a small way the steps of
heroic Jesuits who first consecrated bread and wine on kitchen tables
in South Jersey 200 years ago. Great priests like Fr. Theodore
Schneider from Baltimore, Maryland who celebrated Mass in the house of
Maurice Lorentz and baptized John Martin Alter near a glassworks
factory in Salem County in October, 1743. It is the first recorded
baptism in the Catholic Church of South Jersey and it initiated a
Catholic ministry that now includes 127 parishes from Camden to Cape
May. Sacred Heart in Camden is one.
them, and as we focus on our beginnings in this special centennial
time, we feel the need to peer into a more distant past and trace
gratefully, even though inadequately, the strong seeds of the faith
that first fell on the soil of South Jersey.
enough Salem County, like North Camden, was initially Quaker country,
with prominent Quakers John Fenwick, famous in the former, and William
Cooper famous in the latter. It was to Fenwick's friendly territory
that Casper Wister brought four Catholic families from Belgium to blow
glass in 1739. Others joined them from Ireland and Germany, and this
group of glassworkers at Wisterburg near Allowaystown was the first
Catholic congregation in South Jersey. Their priest was Fr. Schneider,
who was an assistant at St. Joseph's in Willings Alley, the first
Catholic church in Philadelphia, built there by the pastor Fr. Joseph
Greaton SJ in 1741. Philadelphia, like Camden and all New Jersey, was
then in the Diocese of Baltimore. Its Bishop, John Carroll, was deeply
connected with the American Revolution. In George Washington's words:
all men whose influence was most potent in securing the success of the
revolution, Bishop Carroll of Baltimore was the man."
Schneider labored in South Jersey until he died in 1759, and in that
year Fr. Ferdinand Steinmeyer, a Jesuit born in Swabia, Germany in
1720, and who later became known in South Jersey as "Father
Farmer," began to labor up and down the state from New York City
to Salem County. His 28 years of persistent and perilous ministry are
unmatched in the history of the Catholic Church in this state or maybe
in any other. In fact, he even formed the first Catholic congregation
in the City of New York which had no resident priests before 1785.
Farmer died in 1786 and Fr. Lawrence Grassel from Bavaria, born there
in 1753, came to Philadelphia in 1787 to take his place in the South
Jersey mission. Six years later, he was dead, stricken by the plague
of yellow fever that hit Philadelphia in 1793. He had been selected as
an auxiliary Bishop to the now Archbishop Carroll, but he was dead two
months before the Papal confirmation arrived by mail. Bishop Carroll
continued to send priests to Philadelphia and South Jersey. Fr.
Michael Ennis and Fr. Joseph La Grouge came in 1793, but both died of
the yellow fever in 1797. At that time, Fr. Leonard Neal was in charge
of the South Jersey mission and later he succeeded Archbishop Carroll
in the See of Baltimore. He was the last of that first Jesuit ministry
to South Jersey. The hardships endured by these missionary priests as
they traveled in disguise, in fear of penalty, through the "mosquitoed"
swamplands and forests of South Jersey, are known only to the God who
gathers up the goodness of great human lives.
1796 the Augustinian Fathers bought the site of a church at 4th and
Vine Streets in Philadelphia. Contributions were made by Catholics and
Protestants alike, and even by George Washington himself. So the care
of South Jersey Catholics passed into the hands of the Augustinians as
the world passed into the 19th century.
April 8th, 1808, Pius VII divided the See of Baltimore, and the new
Dioceses of Philadelphia New York, Boston, and Bardstown were formed.
For the next 45 years, Camden and all of "West Jersey" - that
is everything south of a line drawn from Hightop to Egg Harbor - were in
the Diocese of Philadelphia, and ruled successively by Bishops Egan,
Carroll, Kenrick and the saintly Neuman, But almost twenty years passed
before the First Catholic church in South Jersey was erected - St. Mary
of the Assumption, built in 1826 at a shingle factory in Pleasant Mills,
Atlantic County. This church, one of only four built in 45 years, was
used as long as workers remained in that area, then abandoned in 1860.
Discovered in 1865 by Fr. Patrick Byrne of Camden, it never recovered
its early usage and was finally destroyed by fire in 1899.
second church was St. Elizabeth, built in 1842 at a window-light glass
factory in Port Elizabeth in Cumberland County. It also lasted as long
as workers remained, closed down in 1879 and was floated on a raft down
the creek to Dennisville, and opened there as St. Elizabeth's of Goshen.
third church was St. Mary's of Gloucester. It was built in 1848 and Fr.
Edward Quincy Cheafe Waldrun was sent by Bishop Patrick Kenrick of
Philadelphia to minister there. Gloucester, one of the first places in
New Jersey to be inhabited by Europeans, had been visited by Fr. Farmer
fourth church in South Jersey was built in Salem. Salem County, since
1743 the first center of Catholicism in South Jersey, hosted an influx
of famine-sent Irish people in 1847. Fr. Patrick O'Hara, pastor of St.
Patrick's in Philadelphia and later Bishop of Scranton, came to Salem
periodically to minister to the people. He began a fund-raising drive
that did not accumulate much initially, but succeeded when John
McDermott was appointed pastor there in 1851. A church, originally
called St. Philip and St. James, was built in 1852.
in 1853 Bishop Neuman handed over the jurisdiction for South Jersey to
the new Diocese of Newark and its Bishop, James Roosevelt Bayley. Bishop
Bayley was part of the family tree of President Roosevelt, as well as a
nephew of Mother Seton, in whose honor he subsequently erected Seton
Hall College in New Jersey. So Camden and South Jersey passed into the
Diocese of Newark for the next 28 years. While many towns were served
from these first four churches of South Jersey (for example, Fr. Waldron
said Mass in Camden in 1848 and also in Cape May, Bridgeton and
Woodstown), it was in the 1850's and 1860's that small churches sprang
up all over South Jersey: St. Nicholas in Atlantic City in 1858, St.
Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Camden in 1859, St. Patrick in
Woodbury in 1859, St. James in Lawnside in 1859, St. Mary Magdeline in
Millville in 1861, St. Joseph in Swedesboro in 1861, St. Nicholas in Egg
Harbor in 1866, and St. Peter and Paul in Camden in 1867.
Of all these towns, Camden grew most rapidly and its first church, St. Mary's, built by the pastor James Moran, soon proved to be too small. In 1864 the second pastor, Patrick Byrne, started a new Church of the Immaculate Conception at Broadway and Market. It was this pastor who established a mission of his parish in South Camden when he bought a plot of land at Eighth and Van Hook Streets. There, in 1872, a little wooden building was erected. The Bishop of Newark sent down Dean William McNulty of Paterson to bless it. The people gathered, the Mass was offered, the sanctuary lamp was lit, and the Church of the Sacred Heart came to life in Camden.