Kevin Riordan: Ageless church keeps a place in their hearts

The Rev. Pawel W. Kryszkiewicz at St. Joseph's Church. "People are so dedicated to this church," he says. "They want to preserve, and build on," what others started.
The Rev. Pawel W. Kryszkiewicz at St. Joseph's Church. "People are so dedicated to this church," he says. "They want to preserve, and build on," what others started. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 15, 2012

To many Polish American Catholics in South Jersey, St. Joseph's is the mother church.

Their love for her endures like the New Hampshire granite of which the majestic edifice at 10th and Liberty Streets in Camden was constructed nearly a century ago.

The Whitman Park neighborhood has frayed almost beyond recognition, and church membership has fallen to less than a quarter of its mid-20th-century peak of nearly 4,000 families.

But St. Joe's will likely be filled next Sunday as the parish celebrates its 120th anniversary.

"People are so dedicated to this church," says the Rev. Pawel W. Kryszkiewicz, 48, the pastor for the last four years. "They want to preserve, and build on, what their parents and grandparents started."

According to a centennial history of the parish, immigrant Poles who had first settled in New York began moving to New Jersey cities like Camden around 1870. By 1892, there were enough Polish families in the city to found their own parish.

"It's the only church I've ever gone to," says Joe Rush, 70, one of the handful of parishioners still living in Whitman Park. He describes himself as "the world's oldest altar boy" because he helps the pastor at Saturday Mass.

Kryszkiewicz and I are sitting in the exuberantly painted nave of St. Joe's after a weekday morning Mass.

The spectacular expanse of stained-glass windows in the cupola above the main altar is ablaze with bright autumn light.

The sounds of the city barely penetrate the grand hush of a place that lifelong parishioner Barbara Olejnik says "always felt a little closer to heaven" than other churches.

"It makes you feel like kneeling down and praying," Kryszkiewicz says, accurately. "It's truly a holy space."

It's also a 99-year-old building with a $900,000 leaky replacement for a roof that also leaked, and an interior that hasn't undergone a major overhaul in decades.

"We want to restore the church to its original grandeur," says John Uecker, 67, another lifelong parishioner and a semiretired interior designer who lives in Haddon Township. He also chairs the restoration committee.

"We are the [descendants] of the founders of the parish, who dug the foundation for their church with picks and shovels to save money," Uecker says. "We want St. Joe's to continue for as long as possible."

Like many older parishioners, he graduated from the elementary and high schools St. Joe's built in Whitman Park. Both closed decades ago; the site of the convent that housed the teaching nuns is now a fenced-in parking lot directly behind the church.

Although parts of Whitman Park are notorious for drug dealing, the area immediately around the church is generally well-kept.

"The perception is that it is dangerous," Kryszkiewicz says, but he hastens to add that "we have not had any major safety issues" during his tenure.

St. Joe's, he adds, has good relations with the neighborhood, which has been mostly African American and Hispanic since the 1980s.

Some parishioners do note with bemusement that young residents today commonly call where they live "Polacktown." These residents have little if any awareness of the ethnic slur - or what Mount Ephraim Avenue, Whitman Park's main drag, was like in its heyday.

"I remember my mother taking me there to buy shoes. I remember the Liberty movie house," Rush says.

"We called it the Polish Boardwalk. Everyone walked up and down," Walter Piatek recalls.

The RCA retiree, 83, lives in Berlin Borough. He moved out of the city in 1967.

But Piatek has never really left St. Joe's, a connection that's cultural as well as spiritual.

The holiday processions, festive foods, traditional decorations, and language itself - Masses are offered in Polish every Sunday morning at 9 - deepen the relationship between the church and its now far-flung flock.

"It's the things you can't get anywhere else - the Polish Christmas carols, the memories of your parents and grandparents and friends who are in their 50s now, like you are," says Joe Paprzycki, who lives in Gloucester City.

Paprzycki's new play - he's producing artistic director of the South Camden Theatre Company - is set in Whitman Park in the '60s and after. Titled Indoor Picnic, it has to do with longtime residents struggling to hold on to a neighborhood whose changes are leaving them behind.

The play is "about home," Paprzycki says. "That's what St. Joe's Church is, too."


Kevin Riordan:

To view video

of Pastor Kryszkiewicz of St. Joseph's in Camden, go to

www.philly.com/stjoseph


Contact Kevin Riordan

at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists'

blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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