The joyous sounds of children’s voices and footsteps have echoed in the halls of Sacred Heart School at 4th and Jasper Streets in Camden since January 19, 1920 – that happy day when the front doors first opened to welcome 580 students. In those days it was not unusual for there to be seventy students in each classroom. For Father John B. McCloskey, then pastor of Sacred Heart Church, the building of a brand new elementary school for the children was a central part of his dream for his parish.
THE FIRST TEACHERS
On that first day of school in January, seven Newburgh Dominican Sisters greeted the children and led them to their classrooms. Sacred Heart students have been greeted by their new teachers every September since – that yearly rite of passage that marks the end of summer and the turning to fall as well as the step from one stone to the next in the little stream of life in elementary school. Two more Sisters came a few weeks later and until 1979, when the needs of their community caused the three remaining Sisters to move to Saint Mary’s in Gloucester, the Newburgh Dominican Sisters educated and nurtured the minds and spirits of the students of Sacred Heart School. Sixty years of dedicated service! Sister Patricia Margaret (Sister Nora Foley today) was the last Dominican principal at Sacred Heart. Since 1979 the teachers and principals who have come to Sacred Heart have continued the tradition of excellence in education rooted in Christian values that the Sisters first established during the school’s earliest beginnings. Ms. Janet Williams, the current principal, has embraced this tradition for twenty-eight years. For four years she taught second and fourth grades and is now in her twenty-fourth year as principal. Her hard work and dedication are an ongoing source of inspiration to her teachers and staff.
CHANGES IN CAMDEN
Camden has changed dramatically since those early days when the school opened in a city that was alive and thriving; where thousands of children were educated in Catholic schools. As suburbs began to develop in areas just outside the city on what was once farmland, Camden residents left the city in large numbers. The closing of the New York Shipyard in 1967, which employed thousands of workers, was a crushing blow from which the city has never fully recovered.
Yet everywhere there are signs of hope. The Heart of Camden, a non-profit housing organization founded in 1984 by Sacred Heart’s pastor of forty years, Father Michael Doyle, has restored almost 200 houses in the Waterfront South neighborhood around Sacred Heart. Across the street from the school, a brand new theatre, The Waterfront South Theatre, has been built thanks to the enormous generosity of Mr. Pepe Piperno and the hard work of The Heart of Camden. There hasn’t been a public theatre for live performances in Camden for many years. The children of Sacred Heart School have use of this for performances and classes. Before the theatre was built our students performed three full-length Shakespeare plays in the church basement as well as a yearly musical revue on Sponsor’s Night. How exciting it has been for our students to watch the theatre being built before their very eyes! Many have said they can’t wait to perform on a “real stage.” Recently the Heart of Camden has completed renovations on the old Star Theatre on Broadway. It now houses a brand new gymnasium, the Michael J. Doyle Fieldhouse, where Sacred Heart students now have their Physical Education classes.
In September of 2015 we opened a brand new Montessori Preschool in what was once the large secretarial course room in the convent – just a short walk across the school driveway. Sacred Heart School is so excited to welcome these very young students to our family.
And still standing at the corner of 4th and Jasper Streets is the red brick school with the bright red, front doors. While Camden and the Waterfront South neighborhood have undergone many changes over the years, Sacred Heart School stands strong and firm in its commitment to nurture and educate its students in a loving, Christian environment, inspired by the teachings of Jesus. In 1920, the vast majority of the students were Catholic. Today most of our students are not. The doors of Sacred Heart are open to children of every race and religion.
For all these years Father Doyle has held fast to his dreams of renewed life in the neighborhood and opportunities for the children. He works tirelessly to achieve these dreams and has inspired countless others to join him. For thirty years he has written monthly letters that go to over 3600 people – some as far away as Europe and Australia! From these a huge number of people come forth each year to sponsor a child in our school. It is this unique Sponsorship Program, initiated by Father Doyle and fostered by him for thirty years, that has kept our school doors open in welcome to the children Sponsor a child and keep the dream alive.
ANOTHER SCHOOL YEAR
On September 6, 2016, our red doors opened for the ninety-seventh year to almost 200 students. Gone are the days of seventy to a classroom. In education we have come to know that smaller classes are more conducive to learning. The walls are freshly painted and every surface is scrubbed to a bright shine. A few summers ago a beautiful wrought-iron fence was erected in front of the school and a sidewalk of warm, autumn-blend bricks was laid there as well. It is a wonderful sight to see the children walk this new path to and from school every morning and afternoon. The school is well-cared for and welcoming; a place that our principal, Janet Williams, is proud of. Proud, too, are the teachers, parents and students of Sacred Heart School.
The first day of school is always an exciting day as the students come in full of enthusiasm and anticipation for the new school year. No first day of school would be complete, however, without the sad tears of the few kindergartners who are not quite ready to leave the comfort of family and home. Yet in a very short time, usually just a few days, they enter the red doors dry-eyed and smiling, ready to spend the day with their Sacred Heart School family in their home away from home.