Not a blacksmith, an Irish poet priest in Camden still works the bellows following an old farmer’s philosophy

Father Michael with his signed Heaney poem
Father Michael with his signed Heaney poem

It’s a terrible day: Thanks be to God.

Michael Doyle’s grandfather would say those words coming home soaked to the bone after plowing his fields in a cold rain with the help of the neighbors and their horses in north County Longford many years ago.

He had done what he had to and it was good to be home by a warm fire.

Another day soon he’d be out in the same helping the neighbors with their fields.

“There is great philosophy in that,” says Michael, the parish priest of Scared Heart in Camden, New Jersey.

The message is you keep going. You keep helping neighbors. You keep plowing. You keep the farm going. You keep doing your bit.

No matter the day and its troubles, it was a good one at its end. You got through it and felt solid about it after.

That understanding philosophy is needed in poverty-stricken Camden, a city of 70,000 that saw 69 homicides last year.

For perspective, New York City hosts 8 million residents and suffered only 414 homicides in 2012.

One of the fairly recent Camden murders took place across the street from Scared Heart.

A young woman of 20 years went out for a sandwich and was gunned down for no reason. A cross now marks the place where her body fell dead.

Scores of white crosses are painted on a black building opposite her cross and next to Michael’s church in memory of last year’s murdered.

On a side wall of that burnt-looking building are the words of an Irish poet:

All I know is a door into the dark.
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
The unpredictable fantail of sparks
Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
Horned as a unicorn, at one end and square,
Set there immoveable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick
To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.

The poem is called “The Forge.” It was written by Derryman Seamus Heaney.

“There were three forges near where I grew up,” Father Michael said recalling his youth not far from the Cavan border.

It is fitting for Michael, a poet himself and a fan of Heaney.

Local artists painted that on the building for him but Michael is more of a welcoming publican than burly blacksmith.

“We are trying to be a church that is at least as friendly as an Irish pub. No small feat. We will keep trying,” Michael writes on the parish’s web site.

In a ruined city devastated by poverty, anger and violence, Michael does work the bellows, keeping alight a glow of hope with endless acts of kindness and understanding.

The embers with the most hope are the young ones.

As Catholic schools around the country continue to close, Father Michael, who is actually a monsignor, has managed to keep the Sacred Heart School going. And only ten percent of the students are Catholic.

The grammar school is there for all the children in the neighborhood. A sponsorship program keeps its doors open.

“All deserve a good start in life and a good education.”

A humble man, with a peace about him, Michael is no one-man show but he is the ringleader.

“I stand here and all these people come to help.”

And they do. They come from better-off towns not far away to donate money, food, clothing, plus time and energy and care.

People in Canada, Ireland, England, Germany, and across the States sponsor children to attend the Sacred Heart School.

The price of sponsoring a child for the school is $300. Each one needs 13 sponsors for the school year and a decent shot at a better life.

If you would like to help a child and aid Father Michael in his mission, contact Sacred Heart at 856-966-6700 or school@sacredheartcamden.org.

The address is 1739 Ferry Avenue, Camden, NJ 08104.

In the meantime, Father Michael will carry on stoking the fire in the forge that is the City of Camden where often it is a terrible day: Thanks be to God.

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