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Poet of Poverty » Poet of Poverty

Priest’s Words, Actor’s Voice, Camden’s Images

Priest’s words, actor’s voice, Camden’s images Print E-mail
Published by Carl Peters
Thu, June 19 2008
Photo by James A. McBride

sheen-doyle.jpgActor Martin Sheen, right, reads the letters of Msgr. Michael Doyle, who has served as a Camden City pastor for 40 years, in the documentary “Poet of Poverty.”

CAMDEN — On the movie screen are two images of Msgr. Michael Doyle. The priest as he looks today, white-haired, is watching a younger version of himself on television, from 25 years ago, when “60 Minutes” did a segment on his work in Camden City.

In conversation with journalist Harry Reasoner for “Michael Doyle’s Camden” in 1983, the Irish clergyman’s voice sounds the same as it does today. Also the same are the priest’s concerns about the neglect of the poor in the inner city, the violence, and the misplaced priorities of a government that pours money into the military and allows children to grow up in crushing poverty.

Watching those two images on the movie screen — included in a new documentary based on what the priest has been saying for four decades now — was Msgr. Doyle himself, in the flesh, and 600 supporters who filled the seats in the Gordon Theater at Rutgers-Camden.

The 55-minute film, “Poet of Poverty,” was screened for the first time on June 14, one day before Msgr. Doyle’s 40th anniversary of his arrival in Camden.

Narrated by actor Martin Sheen, “Poet of Poverty” is built around the letters that Msgr. Doyle, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in South Camden, sends monthly to parishioners, friends and supporters.

The letter that begins the film was written in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and accompanies the image of a child walking past boarded-up buildings and trash-filled streets on his way to school.

“A seventh grade boy in Sacred Heart School made this comment after the frightening destruction of the twin towers in New York that killed 2,700 people. ‘I feel safe here,’ he said. It was an amazing statement because most people are shocked in their shoes and scared to death. ‘You’re not afraid,’ he was asked. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I’m not afraid because if the terrorists fly over Camden, they’ll think they have done it already.’”

The next scene is a candle-lighting ceremony during which the name and age of each of the city’s 58 murder victims that year was read. It is an annual event at the parish.

“God bless America is not a prayer for Camden,” Msgr. Doyle says at one point. “Better, God help America.”

The film shows the neighborhood’s prostitutes and addicts, the city’s junkyards and abandoned houses, but it also includes images of Sacred Heart students saying the Pledge of Allegiance and practicing their penmanship. With the images of urban decay are Msgr. Doyle’s words, expressing his indignation, his Christian compassion — and his delight when he finds glimpses of hope and beauty on the streets of his parish.

The film ends with a letter entitled, “The Dolphins Danced on Arlington.” The camera captures children on a sweltering day who had opened a fire hydrant and created their own water park on an otherwise deserted street:

“Seven children were splashing in cascading water like shining wet dolphins in the sun. Somehow, they had hauled a discarded hot tub from Adventure Spas on Chelton Avenue, opened a fire hydrant and the powerful pressure sent the water upward on an old sheet of plywood into the tub and sent the children into ecstasies of delight in spite of all the awful misery around them…. Nothing could daunt the wild surge of their young lives and hopes. What is it about hope! Does its real inspiration only rise out of the tragic emptiness to take its pure and unsupported stand against all the odds?”

The film had three directors, Sean Dougherty, who is also director of operations at Hopeworks ‘N Camden, a youth development program, Tana Ross and Freke Vuijst.

The premiere of “Poet of Poverty” was coordinated by Heart of Camden Housing, a non-profit housing corporation established by Msgr. Doyle, which also benefits from the proceeds of the showing of the film.

A second screening of “Poet of Poverty” will be held Friday, June 27, 7 p.m., at Sacred Heart Church in Camden. Tickets are $20. For more information contact Helene Pierson, executive director of Heart of Camden, 856-966-1212, ext. 22 or go to www.heartofcamden.org.

Film Honors Priest’s Work in Camden