Departing pastor leaves legacy of quiet activism in Camden

The Rev. William "Jud" Weiksnar looks at a wall of student photos at Camden's St. Anthony of Padua School. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
The Rev. William "Jud" Weiksnar looks at a wall of student photos at Camden's St. Anthony of Padua School. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 11, 2014

Among the favorite tokens that the Rev. William "Jud" Weiksnar will take with him from his time in Camden is a collage of a small girl standing atop a mound of grass, created with shattered glass and litter cleared from Von Nieda Park.

The "trash art" was one of the few remaining items in Weiksnar's parish office Tuesday as he packed up to move after nine years as pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church.

The image, created seven years ago by then-third grade student Soledad Velazquez, shows the girl and a godlike figure holding hands beneath an apple tree.

"It's what she saw of Camden," Weiksnar, 56, said, looking at the image. "It's a very hopeful scene."

The Franciscan friar's assignment in Camden ended this month, as scheduled, and he will leave Thursday to take up his next post helping the poor in Buffalo, his hometown, which is ranked the nation's fourth most impoverished major city.

"I've never been so happy to go somewhere and so sad to leave," Weiksnar said, his voice cracking. His 90-year-old mother, 92-year-old father, brother, and sister are all in Buffalo.

For nearly a decade, the mild-mannered priest, dressed in a long brown habit and often spotted walking the parish dog, Lupe, has fought politely but assertively for the Cramer Hill section of the city.

He spearheaded the restoration of Von Nieda Park, once labeled one of the most depressing parks in the country; ministered individually to countless parishioners; and empowered a community of middle school students to push City Hall for promised changes to their neighborhood.

"He left a legacy here," said Mary Burke, principal at St. Anthony's middle school. "He'll tell you it's the children who have done all that's happened with the park, but it's because of him behind the scenes. He's the one who has met with and supported the children, not just when the cameras are there."

Weiksnar received his undergraduate degree from the University of Notre Dame and two degrees from the University at Buffalo - a law degree and a doctorate in public policy. After joining the Franciscan order, he worked in Peru in the early 1990s during a period of insurgency. While there, he learned to speak Spanish.

He was assigned to Camden because of his bilingualism. It was an assignment he said he dreaded.

"I was more scared my first day in Camden then I'd ever been in Peru," he said.

But in time, he became a community activist, "one of the most involved priests Camden has ever seen," said longtime parishioner Grisel Irizarry, who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years.

Weiksnar said he tried to jump at opportunities as they arise, rather than set down a predetermined plan. "Strategic planning doesn't generally work well for the Franciscans and it doesn't work well for Camden, because you plan, and then something happens, and then what?" he said.

His lack of planning seems to have worked well.

When long-abandoned trailers were torn down across from the church, a community garden was created to fill the space. When a nearby building changed hands and the new owner said he'd be fine with a mural, students and community members got some paint.

Not all of the projects have been easy, particularly when dealing with city government.

Von Nieda Park was an eyesore, littered with drug vials and discarded liquor bottles. Weiksnar tried for about five months to do something. "I couldn't make an inch of progress on my own," he said.

Then he got some students involved. He taught them about civic engagement and how city government works. He passed on his three basic tips for picking an issue: Make it important, challenging, but doable.

The students selected projects and, one by one, year after year, knocked them down. They started by asking Camden County for nets for basketball hoops, then fencing, then trash cans and lights.

The sixth, seventh, and eighth graders have regular cleanup days and planning meetings. They have become regulars at City Council meetings and have developed good relationships with many of the city's top administrators.

Mary Gonzalez, a parishioner since 1996, commended Weiksnar for being both a constant community presence as well as a personal spiritual confidante.

When Gonzalez's son died in a car accident in 2008, she said, she found strength through Weiksnar.

"I was very angry with God, but he made me less afraid and encouraged me to take on leadership positions in the church," she said. "It's made me stronger than I've ever been in my life."

The Rev. Hugh Macsherry, 41, who has been at St. Anthony's for three years, will become pastor, and Mirta Nieves, coleader of the Von Nieda Park Student Task Force, will take over the leadership role with the students.

"He's been a great mentor in terms of showing how to take our faith outside the church and into the community," Macsherry said. "He will be tremendously missed."

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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