Archbishop Celestine Damiano

New Bishop February 1960

damianoIt was announced on February 10, 1960 that the third bishop of Camden would be Archbishop Celestine Damiano, 48, then Apostolic Delegate to South Africa.  The Archbishop was a priest of the Buffalo Diocese, where he had been a pastor, and afterwards, from 1947 to 1952, a member of the staff in Rome of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith.

From 1952 to 1960, Archbishop Damiano had in many ways, almost singularly, changed the face of the Church in South Africa.  His great respect for the dignity of the human person, of whatever race or ethnic origin, would not permit him to silently fulfill the duties of a papal delegate in a country dominated by apartheid.  As he worked in a pastoral manner with other bishops and with the priests of South Africa, he insisted quite vocally on new modes of Church advocacy for the equality of the races.

Shortly after his installation in Camden, where he described himself as above all a “citizen of the Church,” the Archbishop spoke publicly of the plight of the 25,000 Puerto Ricans in the diocese. “Give them an opportunity to belong, to be educated, to progress.”

For the next seven years of his time in Camden, the Archbishop urged and put into action several initiatives to provide a better life for Hispanics. Particular significant contributions made under his direction were the opening of a pre-natal clinic for expectant mothers in North Camden, staffed by the Hospitaler Sisters he brought from Rome in 1966, and the establishment in 1962 of the Spanish Catholic Center which is now a parish for all Hispanics in the city of Vineland.  The works of the Neighborhood Apostolate were also important achievements in the upgrading of pastoral care for Hispanics.

Brazil Missions

A ministry began in 1961 with Father (later Monsignor) Edward Kennedy and Father (later Monsignor) Felix O’Neill assigned to what would be known as Camden’s Brazil Missions.  To this day it is one of Archbishop Damiano’s initiatives which broadened priests and people to understand the universality of the Church and to commit themselves to generosity beyond the borders of the local church.

Probably the most lasting memorial of the Archbishop’s ministry in Camden was his establishment of the House of Charity Appeal for funding the human services of the diocese.  It is noteworthy that the idea of the House of Charity first came from remarks made by Pope John XXIII in 1962.  The Holy Father saw all religions working together to help each other.  The concept for the House of Charity was born with John’s words, “I am your brother Joseph, come into your Father’s house.”

In rapid succession, several new social ministries to the poor and needy were announced:  the pre-natal clinic on State Street in North Camden, additional classes for the developmentally disabled and handicapped persons, the construction of a new complex planned for the educable and trainable in Deptford Township, and the opening of new nursing homes in Pleasantville and Upper Pittsgrove Township near Elmer.  A new chapel and convent were added to St. Mary’s Home, and by 1965 the services there had been expanded to house 95 chronically ill patients.

Expansion of Catholic Education

Just three weeks after his arrival in Camden, Archbishop Damiano announced that his main work in Camden would be to advance Catholic education.  By September 1962 the new Camden Catholic High School on Cuthbert Boulevard in Cherry Hill opened to replace the Camden building substantially destroyed by a fire on Easter night in April 1960.  St. James High School was built and an addition to Gloucester Catholic High School.  The new Holy Spirit High School opened in Absecon in 1964, and in the winter of 1965 the Archbishop broke ground for the third new high school, Pope Paul VI in Haddon Township. The old Camden Catholic High School reopened as a girls’ academy, Cathedral Academy, in September 1965.

Other new high schools were also rising.  St. Augustine Preparatory was opened in Richland, Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Newfield, and an addition to St. Mary of the Angels Academy in Haddonfield.  Bishop Eustace Preparatory in Pennsauken was extensively expanded.

On the elementary level, 17 parish schools were built during the Archbishop’s time; other schools were modernized and expanded.

A diocesan board of education was established in 1965, a board which during its history, to this day, has been instrumental in recommending policies to further Christian formation and educational quality in the schools of the diocese.

On the post-secondary level, Our Lady of Lourdes School of Nursing opened in January 1961, with diocesan clergy teaching philosophy and theology to the future nurses.  In addition, the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) program experienced major growth during Archbishop Damiano’s time.

The Archbishop was deeply committed to the renewed spirit of the liturgy which flowed from the Second Vatican Council, just as he was deeply convinced that the vision adapted by the Council Fathers had to be carefully understood. Hence, scores of programs, conferences and liturgical training programs were established.

The post-conciliar spirit of renewal was evident in a number of other initiatives led by the Archbishop.  He fostered involvement in ecumenical and inter-religious activities, and when he received a B’nai B’rith Award, he was justly proud that he had helped to strengthen brotherhood.