A glass factory, established in 1740 on Alloway Creek in Salem County, was the nucleus for four families who became New Jersey’s first regular Catholic mission center. Three years later was the first recorded Baptism.

Catholics who lived in New Jersey were the responsibility of the Diocese of Baltimore until 1808 when South Jersey passed under the authority of the new Bishop of Philadelphia.  Bishop Francis Kenrick dedicated the St. Mary’s Church in Pleasant Mills on August 15, 1830, the fourth Catholic church in New Jersey and the first in the present-day Diocese of Camden.  The first parish and school were established at St. Mary’s, Gloucester in 1849 and 1859, respectively.

In 1853 the Archdiocese of Newark was created.  Catholics in the area remained under the care of the Archdiocese of Newark until 1881 when the Diocese of Trenton was established.

With continued growth in the Catholic population during the first decades of this century, Pope Pius XI on December 9, 1937 established the Diocese of Camden for the people of the six southern-most counties of New Jersey, a region containing nearly 2,700 square miles. This also marked the time that New Jersey, previously part of the ecclesiastical province of New York, became a separate province, with the metropolitan see at Newark.
1743-1937

At a time when the force of anti-Catholicism limited freedom of worship, clusters of Catholics began to rise across the six counties, and the first recorded Baptism and Mass was October 5, 1743.  The place was a glass factory in Salem County and the celebrant was the apostle of South Jersey, Father Theodore Schneider, S. J. from St. Joseph’s, Philadelphia, a university professor and rector.  Father Ferdinand Farmer succeeded him in 1759 and made his last circuit in exhaustion in 1785.

In 1808 South Jersey became part of the Diocese of Philadelphia under Bishop Francis Kenrick.  The first church in the present-day Diocese of Camden was dedicated at Pleasant Mills on the Mullica River in Atlantic County by Bishop Kenrick in 1830.  Only the cemetery remains as an historic site.  The church built in 1845 at Port Elizabeth in Cumberland County, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, was the site of the earliest confirmations, all at the hands of Bishop Kenrick.  In May of 1879, most of the church was transported down river and creek to Goshen.

In the mid-1800’s Jesuits, Redemptorists, Augustinians and diocesan clergy from Philadelphia traveled across the South Jersey missions on horseback or afoot, crossing streams and rivers, through forests in intolerable heat, with their sack strapped across their backs containing what was needed for Mass and the Sacraments.  Finally, Father Edmund Waldron, the first priest assigned to work primarily in South Jersey, arrived in Gloucester City in 1848 in spite of warning that he might be stoned there. The first Church of St. Mary in Gloucester was blessed by Bishop Kenrick in 1849; it was replaced by the present church in 1889.  St. Mary is not only the oldest parish in the Diocese of Camden but has the oldest school, built in 1859.

After Bishop (now Saint) John Neumann requested that his Diocese of Philadelphia be made smaller, the Diocese of Newark was established in 1853 headed by Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley.  Camden was now part of Newark and in these days Salem, Gloucester and Millville were centers of Catholic worship along with Immaculate Conception in Camden.  In 1855, Father James Moran, the first priest ordained in New Jersey, was sent as pastor of the new parish. The first church there was replaced in 1866 with what is now the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

 

Racial and Ethnic Diversity

The multi-ethnic character of the Camden Diocese had its beginnings in the mid 1800’s.  A settlement of blacks in Snow Hill built St. James Church in 1865, in what is now Lawnside, below Haddonfield.  Black Catholic communities later gathered at St. Monica in Atlantic City, which was founded at the turn of the century by the saintly Emma Lewis with the help of Saint Katharine Drexel.  St. Bartholomew mission in Camden was opened in 1947.

The Germans and the Irish had been the earlier settlers of South Jersey, but by the beginning of the new century there were 14,000 of Polish descent in New Jersey; hence, St. Joseph Church in Camden, and the Polish missions in Egg Harbor, Mays Landing, Swedesboro and Woodbine.

By 1900, there were over 32,000 Italians in North Jersey alone, with thousands more settling the farms surrounding Vineland, and building their first church north of Vineland in 1880.  The early presence of Italian citizens in South Jersey is a presence crucial to the growth of Catholicism in the region.

When the Diocese of Trenton was founded in 1881, 11 of its 27 priests were in South Jersey.  By 1900, 20 of the 81 parishes of Trenton were in South Jersey.  In 1884, the Fathers of Mercy established their seminary and college in Vineland, and Trenton’s bishop sent his seminarians for training and his priests for retreat to Sacred Heart College and Theological Seminary, which lasted only 10 years.

The growth of South Jersey and the Church here began to escalate at the end of the last century due to increased intertwined principles of transportation, industry and immigration.  Prosperity and mobility created a new migration to the suburbs.  The slowly developing Camden area quickly became, in a sense, Philadelphia’s suburbs.

The prosperity of the 1920’s became translated into Catholic schools. During Bishop Walsh’s 10-year office in Trenton, 45 parochial and 11 secondary high schools were established.  High schools in Camden, Gloucester, Atlantic City and Penns Grove began during this era.

When Bishop Walsh went to Trenton, a good part of the region felt the strain of the Depression.  Despite the odds, the number of Catholic schools in South Jersey increased with Sacred Heart High School in Vineland and Vincent Pallotti Seminary, later St. Joseph High School in Hammonton.

With continued growth in the Catholic population during the first decades of this century, Pope Pius XI on December 9, 1937 established the Diocese of Camden for the people of the six southern-most counties of New Jersey, a region containing nearly 2,700 square miles. This also marked the time that New Jersey, previously part of the ecclesiastical province of New York, became a separate province, with the metropolitan see at Newark.

The new diocese of approximately 100,000 Catholics in 49 parishes, 31 mission churches and 35 parochial schools (thirty elementary and five secondary) was served by 75 diocesan priests and 11 priests of religious communities.  In the whole area there was not a single Catholic human services institution or school of higher learning.

South Jersey Catholics awaited the news of their first bishop.  For almost a week, they speculated on local priests who would be tough and hardened to a ministry of building and fundraising to meet the already present burdens of the parishes.