CAMDEN — The story of St. Joseph's could have mirrored that of countless churches in post-industrial cities:
Once home to a booming congregation of devout immigrants and their children, its numbers dwindled over the decades as parishioners aged or moved away and the neighborhood with a nickname reflective of its Polish residents, and the city itself, changed around it. It was merged with another Camden church — the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception — during a series of consolidations within the Diocese of Camden.
Its magnificent baroque edifice fell into disrepair, and though its ornate tower still rises above the city, visible to motorists speeding over Camden on Interstate 676 and riders on the PATCO Hi-Speedline, the church could have become another casualty of the times: forgotten by generations who left Camden behind, left to decay in a city full of dilapidated buildings, ignored by the people who live there but worship at other churches, or not at all.
Except St. Joseph's Polish Catholic Church didn't continue to deteriorate.
Instead, the church is on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places. It has not been forgotten by those whose parents and grandparents left Camden for the suburbs. And it hasn't forgotten them, either: Each Sunday, there is a bilingual Mass celebrated, in English and Polish, in person at the Whitman Park church and even streaming online.
The church has a thriving community and a robust History Society that’s determined to keep its legacy not just alive, but vital and relevant. Its supporters — most from outside the city and many from across the country — have kept St. Joseph's from becoming another crumbling, old, inner city church.
“We don’t want this church to be a museum,” said Henry Szychulski. “We want to remember its history, but we don’t want it to be history.”
A Catholic church with Polish roots
Szychulski and his wife Dot, who live in Haddon Heights, both grew up in Whitman Park, once an enclave for Polish immigrants and their families. The two offer tours of the church, telling visitors how St. Joseph’s came to be.
There was no nation called Poland at the time many of the first wave of immigrants came to Camden to work in its factories and shipyards. Instead, regions of what is now modern-day Poland were ruled by Germany, Austria and Russia. Between 1870 and 1914, 3.6 million Poles came to the United States in search of more economic opportunity.
Like many immigrants, those families wanted a church where they could worship in the ways they were accustomed, and in the language of their native land. In 1891, they petitioned their diocese (then the Diocese of Trenton) for their own parish in Camden, and St. Joseph’s was established the following year.
The present church at 1010 Liberty St. was designed by George I. Lovatt, a Philadelphia architect who specialized in baroque churches; construction began in 1912 and the building was consecrated in 1914. It cost $100,000 — all of it raised by the working-class congregants who would make the church the center of their spiritual lives.
Much of what the Szychulskis tell visitors whom they guide through tours of the church comes from a 1942 history of it, written by parishioners in anticipation of St. Joseph’s 50th anniversary.
There is one small problem, though, Dot Szychulski explained: “It was written in Polish, but not the Polish that exists today. A very archaic Polish.”
How Polish immigrants impacted the church
Henry Szychulski’s parents were part of a second wave of immigrants who came during World War II and its aftermath.
“There were parishioners here who sponsored family members to come here from Poland,” Dot Szychulski said. They, in turn, settled in Camden as well.
St. Joseph’s Church — and the neighborhood around it — continued to grow and prosper; at one point, the parish had as many as 10,000 members, Henry said.
Today, what is now known as St. Joseph’s Polish Catholic Apostolate of the Diocese of Camden (“We don’t do short names,” Henry Szychulski joked) has about 300 families, and many more will return to the church of their parents and grandparents for Christmas and Easter, the most holy holidays on the Catholic calendar.
A bilingual Mass is celebrated at 10 a.m. each Sunday, and Dot Szychulski estimated about 80 to 90 people attend each week.
“Maybe a third of them are first-generation or immigrants themselves,” she said. “Others just want to stay in touch with their roots and their traditions.”
What's inside St. Joseph's
It’s not only Polish tradition on display at St. Joseph’s. And it’s not only the faithful who will appreciate the church.
Elaborate celestial paintings adorn its 63-foot ceilings. St. Joseph's stained glass windows, each bearing the name of its respective donor in Polish, inspire awe as the sunlight streams through their vibrant colors. Henry Szychulski said it's believed they were created by Mayer & Co. of Munich, a famed German stained-glass window company, and installed between 1918 and 1924; many of the company's records were destroyed in World War II, however, so they're unable to confirm that.
A traditional choir box overlooks the church's altar and nave, with a working pipe organ that was rebuilt in 1972.
Its altar was modified after Vatican II to enable priests to face their congregation. (Before the 1962-65 ecumenical council that modernized the Catholic Church, they did not.) It is decorated with sacred statuary and ringed by an astounding collection of more than 90 relics from saints through the ages and around the world.
A wooden confessional next to the altar awaits the penitent; another in the back is no longer used, Henry Szychulski said: “People don’t sin anymore,” he laughed.
Three bells — a quarter-ton bell named Mary; a half-ton bell named John and a one-ton bell named Adalbert — are in the church’s tower, still working.
St. Joseph's unique Nativity scene
Perhaps the most unusual feature of St. Joseph’s, though, isn’t actually in the church; it’s next door, in a building that once served as a school: the szopka.
Taking up about a quarter of a room that used to be a classroom, the szopka is a moving, mechanized Nativity scene. The one at St. Joseph’s, believed to be the only one in the United States, includes not only the traditional characters — Mary, Joseph and Jesus — but moving representations of the Three Wise Men, Pope John Paul II (now a saint), and notable figures in Polish history.
It's part of the tour, too, as is St. Joseph's History Room, filled with artifacts that tell the church's story. There are antique vestments hung with care, photographs and yearbooks from St. Joseph's grammar and high schools, which both closed in 1979.
St. Joseph's Church in Camden has a traditional Polish Nativity display that its History Society believes is the only one of its kind in the United States. Cherry Hill Courier-Post
Preserving St. Joseph's legacy
Preserving St. Joseph's legacy and keeping the community alive is a labor of love for the Szychulskis.
"This is an emotional thing for me," said Henry. "I was baptized and confirmed here; this goes back to my parents' being here."
"A lot of people are still attached to this church," said Dot, no small amount of affection in her tone.
"They don't live here anymore — they may even live across the country — but they still consider themselves parishioners here."
Phaedra Trethan: @CP_Phaedra; 856-486-2417; firstname.lastname@example.org
About St. Joseph's
St. Joseph's Church is at 1010 Liberty St., Camden. Tours are offered on the second Saturday of each month, November through May. A Celebration of Polish Arts with choir performances, folk art, healing Mass and veneration of relics will take place April 13 starting at 1:30 p.m.
For more information, call 856-963-1285 or visit http://stjosephscamdennj.com/
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