On Sunday, June 20, the Irish and Irish American community came together to celebrate Irish priest Father Colm Campbell’s golden jubilee at a reception held in his honor in the Holy Trinity Church in New York.
Campbell, 75, has served the Irish community in New York passionately and diligently for 18 years since his appointment as chaplain to Irish immigrants in New York in 1992.
“It was a very special day for me to have people I’ve worked with from the very beginning all together to help me celebrate my time here and my 50 years as a priest,” Campbell told the Irish Voice.
“I got to share the day with couples I married, kids I baptized who are now teenagers and hundreds of good friends and parishioners.”
Campbell, president of the board and acting executive director of the New York Irish Center in Long Island City, Queens, was born in Belfast in 1935. He worked there through the worst of the Troubles until his assignment to New York in 1992.
“There has been so many wonderful things about my time here in New York, but the highlight for me has been having my dream fulfilled, my dream to have an Irish center in New York,” said Campbell proudly. “I just saw such a great need for it.”
Campbell saw the isolation hundreds of Irish immigrants were experiencing who came to New York between the 1960s and 1980s, and their desire for support and company. He also was acutely aware that the new immigrants of the 1980s and ‘90s needed a place to go that would provide them with help and advice in beginning and sustaining a life in New York.
“My dream was made possible by the kind heart of some wonderful people who backed the center -- the Irish of new corporate America I call them -- who put up money to see the center come to life,” he said.
Campbell is also very grateful for the support he received through the years from the Irish Consulate in New York.
“They’ve always been there supporting any work I’ve done, and it meant a lot to see some of the staff there on Sunday at the celebrations,” he added.
Campbell was the oldest child of J.J. and Josephine Campbell. He was raised in New Lodge, a working-class Catholic community on the northern edge of Belfast’s city center.
After high school, Campbell attended Queen’s University Belfast from 1953 to 1956 where he studied math, Irish history, Greek and Latin. He also earned a BA in scholastic philosophy.
At this time he entered St. Malachy’s Seminary to study for the priesthood. After four years at St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, Co. Kildare, Campbell was ordained for the Diocese of Down and Connor in Northern Ireland on 19 June 1960.
At the beginning of Campbell’s vocation he served as chaplain of the Good Shepard Convent in Belfast. The convent provided shelter and social services, including adoption for single mothers and their children.
In 1967 Campbell was transferred to Crumlin, just northwest of Belfast, where his duties included being chaplain to the Royal Air Force station in Aldergrove.
Five years later and during the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Campbell was assigned as curate to Andersonstown in West Belfast.
Campbell remembers only too well the Troubles at their peak both on a personal level and through his work in the community.
“I was sent to St. Theresa’s in the Glen Road in 1972. It was actually the same day the army arrived to stop it from being a no-go area,” he says.
“I attended to the parishioners and the hunger strikers, to people who were shot and injured. They really were tough times and it certainly took a strain on the whole community,” remembers Campbell.
While working closely with the young of Northern Ireland, Campbell saw a need for a youth service and quickly teamed up with various leaders in other religions to form Youth Link, which is still running strongly today.
“I’m very proud of that,” said Campbell. “It certainly was one of the big achievements of my priesthood to be able to establish that.”
In 1985 Campbell was made the director of Youth Services for the Diocese of Down and Connor.
In 1992 Campbell decided to leave Ireland for New York, and took the position as chaplain to the Diocese of Brooklyn in 1992 under the auspices of the Irish Episcopal Commission for Emigrants.
“I was ready for a change. I was looking for something different and the Holy Spirit got to work,” he explains.
While visiting a priest in Dublin, Campbell was informed of an opening in New York for chaplain. “It sounded good to me,” he said.
After being granted three years absence from his parish in Belfast he landed in New York, not knowing a soul but ready for the job in hand.
“I really had no job description and was told I’d figure it out myself,” he recalls.
Based at St. Teresa’s parish in Woodside, Queens but unsure how to make contact with the Irish, Campbell quickly found himself going from bar to bar handing out business cards. Before he knew it he was a fully fledged member of the Irish community, doing the work God send him on his journey to do.
In 1999 Campbell was appointed national director of the Irish Apostolate USA, based in Washington, D.C., and he worked closely with the Coalition of Irish Immigration Centers, a national umbrella organization coordinating services for Irish immigrants in the U.S.
“I traveled everywhere with this and I loved it,” he said.
After a brief stint in Pennsylvania Campbell retired because of health reasons, but in 2005 was persuaded to help with the creation of the New York Irish Center in Long Island City.
Through the years Campbell has been instrumental in helping Irish immigrants in whatever area they needed. He is also well known for setting up a thriving mother and toddler group for Irish mothers who didn’t have any family to fall back on in the U.S.
“That was a great success with over 300 members,” he added proudly.
He also began studying theology at St. John’s University in Queens, and earned a masters in theology, which lead him to a teaching position at the university.
“I wouldn’t have survived 50 years in the priesthood without the wonderful people I encountered, and although coming here as an immigrant I knew no one people quickly showed me kindness and helped me out when I needed it,” said Campbell.
Campbell plans to continue his work with the Irish Center and serve his community whenever he is required.