People, Religion

Documentary Shines a Bright New Light on the “Heart of Camden”

The beloved community organizer, poet and peacemaker Monsignor Michael Doyle, native of Rossduff, County Longford, Ireland, is regarded by many as a living saint, though he would dispute such a thing.

To those admirers, Doyle is the life force behind “Heart of Camden,” the multifaceted nonprofit launched in 1984 and responsible for resurrecting the Waterfront South neighborhood in the beleaguered New Jersey city across the Delaware from Philadelphia.

Retired recently after 40 years as pastor of Sacred Heart Church on Ferry Avenue, Doyle’s contributions to that community are manifold, including rehabilitating well over 200 abandoned homes sold to low-income families. He is also the driving force behind the acclaimed Sacred Heart School, which brings hope to children throughout the neighborhood. He established a free clinic—and, really, all of that is just scratching the surface of a life filled with and motivated by a passionate desire for justice and a longstanding commitment to the fight against the cancer of racism.

Now, a recently released 42-minute documentary shines a new light on Doyle’s life and legacy. Taking its cue from Doyle’s creation, it is called “The Heart of Camden: The Story of Father Michael Doyle,” produced by filmmaker Doug Clayton and narrated by acclaimed actor Martin Sheen, a longtime admirer.

Clayton, who grew up in nearby Collingswood, knew of Michael Doyle—in that area, who wouldn’t have. But his first close contact resulted from another documentary of his called “Dovere of Camden.” (“Dovere” is Italian for “responsibility.”)

“That was about a theater that he was instrumental in creating across the street from the church,” explains Clayton. “That was the focus of the documentary. I spent about an hour with him. Then I really got to know him much better when we made this documentary. I had the pleasure of interviewing him three different times, for an hour each—and then also drinking tea with him and just spending time with him in the rectory where he lives and just talking about life and various things. And he’s a wonderful man. So that’s how I’ve come to know and love him.”

Long after most parish priests would have transferred out to a far less challenging billet in a suburban parish, Doyle has resolutely remained committed to his Camden ministry. Clayton wanted to know: How could he have done that?

“How do you do that and keep the batteries charged, and keep your mental state solid? It’s just amazing to me,” Clayton says. “It would have been easy for him to go to the suburbs, but he didn’t. It’s just amazing to me. He was so committed to just doing what’s right. And he talks about the children, how a lot of what he does is ultimately to him them through these really difficult conditions.”

No documentary about Monsignor Michael Doyle would be complete—indeed, it wouldn’t really make sense—without placing his contributions within the context of that neighborhood and its decades-long transformation. So you’ll learn about how he came to America, his early days in the country, and his longtime impact. But, says, Clayton, the documentary ultimately focuses on what he describes as the “holy trinity” … Doyle, Heart of Camden, and the city itself. People who watch the documentary, he says, will come away with an education about all three.

Helping to tell that story is Sheen, who, Clayton says, is well familiar with Doyle and refers to him as “the mighty saint.”

Clayton feels fortunate to have enlisted Sheen in his project, and he found the actor incredibly easy to collaborate with.

“He knows Michael Doyle and just has so much respect for him,” Clayton says, “and he’s spent a little bit of time with him. So we were very, very fortunate. He was so wonderful to work with. A great guy, very humble. And he really cares about giving back and helping out.”

Sheen’s response to an advance screening of the documentary was gratifying. “After the first five minutes, he began crying. And he said, ‘That’s enough. I get it. You basically captured the man in the first five minutes.”

Clayton’s co-producer on the film, he adds, was Bill Horin of ArtC, together with camera person and editor Frank Weiss.

And the response of the subject of the film? Characteristically humble and self-effacing, says Clayton.

The premiere was on October 9 in a pop-up drive-in movie screen presentation in a park along the Delaware, which—combined with admissions and outside sponsorship and donations—netted $32,000 for Heart of Camden. The presentation almost immediately sold out.

Doyle was seated inside of a car, where he had watched the film. Clayton approached him, and Doyle rolled the window down a crack.

“I was bracing myself, because you just don’t know,” says Clayton. “He said, ‘Doug, Doug, Doug … what have you done? It’s beautiful. It’s perfect. The only thing I don’t like about it is you made me look too good. I probably deserved about 10 percent of what people said in the movie.”

One of those who believes the tribute well-deserved is Ann Claffey Baiada, who, with her husband Mark, underwrote the production costs. Mark Baiada is founder of Bayada Home Care.

“I’ve known Father Doyle for many, many years now, and I think he’s just a wonderful, magical human being,” says Ann Baiada. “You just love him when you’re around him. You want to hug him. My husband was the one who said, ‘You should get him on video.’ The seed of the idea was my husband’s. I believe we had to capture his story and his legacy and his essence on video, so that years from now people will understand, and still support him and his legacy.”

The Baiadas’ interest in Doyle’s mission stemmed from a Diane Sawyer interview on the ABC News program 20/20. Sawyer contrasted the lives of the children in Camden with those who live 20 minutes down the road in Moorestown. You couldn’t watch that program, Baiada says, without compassion. “You realize how lucky you and your friends are here, and how grateful children growing up around here should be,” says Baiada. “Wait until they see the show where a little kid, all he wants for Christmas is curtains for his mother’s kitchen. It broke my heart. From that, a group of us talked about how we could help and, in search for how to help, someone suggested I meet Father Doyle. So two of us went to Father Doyle’s rectory one fine day and had a cup of tea with him. It took off from there. We’ve been helping ever since, in small and bigger ways.”

As with Sheen and the subject of the film himself, Baiada says it brought her to tears. As a longtime friend, she has observed pieces of the story, but having it all so artfully knitted together in one documentary was, she says, simply perfect.

“It perfectly captured Father Doyle and it perfectly captured the message that I think my husband and I wanted to be captured. I think the message is that all of us as a society have to do something about social justice issues in this country, and not just in Camden. I think that will ring true with people who see this. It’s not enough to say, ‘ Oh, I’m not a racist’ or ‘This is fake, it isn’t really happening.’

“The other message that comes through loud and clear is that you don’t have to be Catholic to be helped by Father Doyle. It’s not about religion. It’s about need and people of all faiths coming together in a community with his love overseeing it. It’s who he is.”

“Heart of Camden” has been entered into two film festivals and accepted into one, the New Jersey Film Festival, with plans to enter it into more festivals, both in the United States and Ireland. “We’re going to have online streaming at some point,” Clayton adds, “with DVDs for sale, especially around Christmas time.”

Clayton produced the film pro bono. All proceeds will benefit Heart of Camden.

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