Camden, NJ - Site Visit

Visits in Camden, New Jersey

Written by: Sister Marti McCarthy, SSS

May 30, 2013

A dozen yellow-tee-shirted St. Anthony seventh graders waved us off the bus as we entered von Nieto Park in Camden, New Jersey. These young activists had taken charge of their local park, which had been dirty and unsafe. The park we toured, led with pride by various members of the young group, was clean and beautiful with many improvements.

The project began when a PICO organizer facilitated a workshop on civic engagement. The park became their project and their adventure into active community advocacy. Franciscan Father Jud became their weekly companion on the journey where they figured out what needed to be done, learned who the city and county decision-makers were, and took responsibility for ongoing development and oversight of the park.

First stop was the bulletin board with coming events listed and the story of the park as featured in NETWORK’s Connection. Sister Simone had met the group at a workshop at Sacred Heart in Camden and was moved by their spunk and their commitment. After seeing the new crosswalks at the corner, we visited the swings which had been unusable before and now were in basic good repair. While there, the group noticed that one of the swings had been broken and immediately called the park representative who could see that it was fixed.

A focal point of the park is a gigantic colorful mural which was created by the school art teacher and the children. When the mural was later “graffiti’d” the students and the Camden mayor repainted those parts. Plans are to provide a protective seal to prevent future problems.

Once a month, the young group meets with city and county officials as well as police. Through their ongoing advocacy they have secured $60,000 in community development funds to provide better lighting for the area. Their next project is to provide a playground on property next to the park.

When the neighbors were initially told about the children’s project a longtime neighbor said,”Nothing will change here.”  The youth are teaching their elders how to make things happen.

Then it was on to St. Joseph’s.

A fifth grade class of blue-shirted St. Joseph students greeted us for a tour of their school. Imaginative art was everywhere inside. The spirit and dedication here was visible and palpable.

St. Joseph and St. Anthony are two of the five schools that make up Catholic Partnership Schools, which has for the past three years preserved Catholic education in five Camden parishes  (the other three are St. Cecilia, Sacred Heart  and Holy Name). When three of five of the schools were going to be closed, the Partnership (a 501(c)3) agreed to manage the schools as one system, share teacher resources as well as family support workers. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia, together with lay colleagues, staff the schools. Sister Karen Dietrick, SSJ manages the school project. She excitedly told me about the literacy success rates that these multi-cultural, multi-racial schools have achieved and the number of scholarships to high school that students have garnered. 

We also visited St. Joseph’s Pro-Cathedral in Camden

About 250 people met with us at St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral in Camden to greet Nuns on the Bus and to hear from parishioners who have been active in Immigration issues. We began with a beautifully sung “Donde Esta Dios” representing the ongoing journey of immigrants in this country. Sister Veronica, SSJ introduced us and introduced women Latina leaders who spoke about their work on behalf of their immigrant communities.

Works included a Know Your Rights workshop giving critical information - including, for example, the need to have a power of attorney in case of deportation. Safety training for construction and landscaping according to the standards of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was described, including reporting requirements.

 The English as a Second Language (ESL) program was explained and the good use of it by both women and men. Project Dignitas described the work of justice, equality, and peacemaking Catholic Social Teaching real to people in the spirit of Oscar Romero, martyred Salvadoran bishop, who spoke of moving from a crucified to a resurrected people.

PICO’s local organizing project at the parish—Andrews Meeting—was described as a process for identifying community needs for equality, decent jobs, and family stability. At a Liberty Park rally and again with a Mass in support of immigrant families--celebrated by Bishop Dennis Sullivan on May 3--support for immigrants was highlighted. Bishop Sullivan had proclaimed the weekend following the Mass as Justice for Immigrants weekend during which over 5000 cards of support were signed.

Young representatives of the Dreamers of St. Joseph spoke of their work researching possibilities for college and securing lower tuition rates for immigrant students. Students from St. Joseph’s attended the Senate Committee in DC on Immigration Reform at the time it passed out of Committee. Those who went had their pictures taken with their senator and one of them described the whole experience as the best day in her life.

How moving to hear the stories and the work! Simone ended the gathering with support for the work done and gave concrete ways to move ahead on comprehensive immigration reform.