Of Vast Import to the Nation

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

Every afternoon around 4, a wiry, bespectacled man wearing a faded blue floppy hat with a faded, interlocking yellow ND on the front emerges from the gap in the chain-link fence that surrounds all but the front steps of Saint Anthony of Padua Catholic Church. He ambles down the sloped wedge of lawn tethered to a thigh-high German shepherd-mix with a squared jaw whose eyes reassure the stranger, “I won’t hurt you.”

The pair waits for the light to change at the corner of 28th and River. To their right is that flimsy fence, the friary with barred windows, the long brick-and-glass face of Saint Anthony of Padua School as weather-beaten as the man’s cross-trainers, and the abandoned shell of a house in which an almost-abandoned neighbor lived until shortly before he died. To the left, three simple project homes share a streetscape with aging rowhouses and storefronts. Some are burned out and boarded up, others shelter businesses, churches, services, people.

Father Jud Weiksnar '79

This could be any bare-knuckled neighborhood in a hundred cities in the Northeast, but it isn’t just anywhere. It’s Camden, New Jersey.

Camden makes headlines at least once a year as one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in the United States. Cramer Hill, Saint Anthony’s neighborhood, may be the “nicest” section of the city, but the man on the corner tells me that after moving here three years ago he’s pondered “what ‘nice’ really means.” It now has less to do with streets than people. Hope and humanity haven’t surrendered in Camden.

Today’s dog-walk, on a spring-like afternoon, is a little different. Father William “Jud” Weiksnar, OFM, Notre Dame class of 1979, has company. He told me to bring my running shoes because Lupe, the friary dog, doesn’t really walk. Of course I forgot, and now I understand my mistake because I’m wearing a pair of comfy brown Doc Martens woefully unsuited to windsprints.

The moment the red hand disappears from the crossing signal box, Weiksnar barks the command: “Go!”

And they’re off. Up 28th, climbing the hill past the weedy, trash-filled lot that was a row of homes until a child started a fire some years ago. They pause again, long enough for me to lumber up behind them, and turn right. Lupe (as in Our Lady of Guadalupe) spots a squirrel, so our reunion doesn’t last long.

Call this Lupe’s ministry. She takes Weiksnar out into the neighborhood where most days he’ll see parishioners. The face time is invaluable. The smile. The presence. Many stop for short conversations, often in Spanish. Weiksnar calls each person by name. He invites them to Sunday Mass and almost always the response begins, Gracias, Padre, pero necesito trabajar. . . . Thank you, Father, but I need to work.

Yet somehow they seem to come.

A Domer and the Church
This is a fanfare for the common Domer. It’s for the so-called underachievers, the George Baileys who sacrifice Paris and personal ambition to give their all for Bedford Falls. It’s for all those who fumble to account for themselves at class reunions; whose life’s work holds no promise of professional recognition. It’s for those women and men who, as a matter of habit and integrity and hope and calling, find the needs of others at one with their own humble dreams.

It’s also a tale about the contemporary Church, though it may seem incomplete to those who expect allusions to scandal, angry laity, battles over orthodoxy and disgruntled, middle-age priests at constant loggerheads with aloof bishops. Sufficient for Weiksnar and his fellow laborers in this vineyard are the needs of foreign-born parishioners and the incessant demand for strategic planning in the face of impending parish mergers and closures around the diocese.

In an immigrant parish where adults hold down two or more jobs and risk losing them if they stick to religious scruples, something like Saint Anthony’s Wednesday night Mass can carry almost the same weight as the Sunday obligation. It’s not the ideal, everyone knows, but they do what they must.

Founded in the 1950s, Saint Anthony is a working-class church that never knew a prosperous Camden. The Franciscans arrived in 1993, having pulled out of the wealthiest parish in the province in order to live among and better serve the poor. Five pastors later—one priest after another plucked away to meet other priorities—parish life until recently had taken on an instability that closely resembled the instability that has kept Camden itself desperately poor. But praying with the Wednesday night congregation makes it clear that Weiksnar, now in his third year, is accepted, even beloved, and that his people expect he’ll be here for a while.

Weiksnar’s Spanish is fluent, delivered in mild, calming tones and cadence. He studied in Peru, which is just as well because he’s not tied by idiom or accent to any one group among the Puerto Ricans, Dominicans or Mexicans whom he figures make up 95 percent of his parish in roughly equal numbers. A few dozen have gathered for Mass; maybe six are old enough to have silver hair. The rest are young parents, teenagers and small children. Weiksnar cannot count on all of them understanding one language or the other. His homily touches on gangs, immigration and the economy, and he slips back and forth between Spanish and English so smoothly I wonder whether he’s conscious of the changes. A theme emerges in his give-and-take delivery. “Who is our enemy? Miedo. Fear is our enemy.” And that fourth person in the flames with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego? Es el señor. “It’s our Lord Jesus.”

At first glance, Saint Anthony is a simple hall with a single aisle, wooden pews and an unadorned, white plaster, barrel-vault ceiling. Its one exceptional ornament is the stained-glass window illustrating the life of the patron saint of lost things up above the choir loft. But Weiksnar’s stories transform what I see.

Outside in the night and noise of River Avenue, I get a look at the flawless brickwork of the porch, put in for free by a parishioner’s crew. His first Sunday as pastor, Weiksnar had tripped and fallen down the old stone steps that were “literally disintegrating.” The church bought the materials and the man provided what amounted to $5,000 of labor.

“His wife came to us in tears about two months ago. He’d been deported,” Weiksnar continues. At 4 a.m., agents in riot gear entered the house, where more than one family was staying, and “swept up everybody. He’d done nothing wrong, except coming into the country without documentation, but someone else in the house had committed a crime, I guess.”

The man’s skill and generosity stayed behind, gifts to a church he may never worship in again. Such gifts are everywhere. Sunday collections are scant, but José Cabán Sr. fixed the gutters on his own initiative. New lighting and a sound system were installed after hours of volunteer trial-and-error. The cry room boasts angelic scenes created by Maria Quiñones, who, prodded by her daughter, answered a call to paint the room and discovered an artistic talent she didn’t know she had. Weiksnar would have been happy with plain off-white. “Now everybody wants to come in the cry room,” he says with a laugh.

The parish has a staff and recently established itself as an assignment for Franciscan Volunteer Ministers—college graduates who work with Father John Coughlin, the associate pastor who has spent all six years of his priesthood in Camden and recently asked for more. “Everybody’s got two jobs here,” Weiksnar says. He himself is the only person at the moment who knows how to work the sound board in the church and boiler in the school basement.

“I don’t mind getting my hands dirty. Francis wanted us to work,” he adds on our way to the friary. It’s a matter of trying to find the balance between the practical and the pastoral with scarce resources. He says he’s never been happier, yet the place drives him crazy. Agony and ecstasy.

He arrived on the heels of a popular pastor and met skepticism and resistance. “I think people had scaled down their expectations of what could happen here,” he says. "Part of that is just from living in the Camden environment, because it can be very depressing. The crime, the violence, the starkness of the physical landscape, the large number of people who are on parole in the city. . . . It could really get people down, you know?

“There’s all these excuses for why you would not start something. I guess I’m kind of stubborn. And for some of it I figured, well, we’re going to try it. And some of it hasn’t worked. But some of it has.”

Time for school
Saint Anthony of Padua School has 180 students in grades K through 8. If you ask the new principal, 200 would be optimal, but the diocese would like to push that number even higher.

After the children’s Mass and Stations of the Cross Thursday morning, Weiksnar and I head over. The sunshine on the blacktop is bright and warm. Weiksnar remembers the parking lot three years ago as a moonscape. “One day a kid tripped and fell in a pothole and got a stone embedded in his forehead,” he says. The boy healed and Weiksnar was relieved when his father didn’t sue. The diocese bankrolled the resurfacing, but Weiksnar wonders whether the parish will ever be able to repay.

Next to the school is a mostly open lot where he dreams of building a gymnasium. The shack facing River Avenue is Ron’s house. No one knows whether Ron was ever formally adopted by the couple who took him in as a child. Mentally disabled, he did odd jobs at the church for food and cigarette money. After his foster mother died, Ron continued to live there without electricity, heat or water. One night an intruder broke in. After that, Ron slept in the bus station downtown. Weiksnar worked with Church caseworkers to find him an apartment, and Ron was overjoyed. Two weeks later, Ron died of a heart attack. The schoolchildren mourned their friend at his funeral, and the parish hosted a balloon launch behind the house in his honor.

Upstairs in Mrs. Martin’s third grade classroom, the children stand to greet us in chorus the moment they see Weiksnar’s brown robe in the doorway. Soledad has been good, so she leads a Hail Mary. Weiksnar has prepared a short lesson about Saint Anthony. After a few minutes of questions and answers, he turns to show clips of a movie about the saint’s life but cannot work the DVD player. Instantly he is swarmed by 8-year-old tech support, and in a few minutes the kids are rewarded with scenes of Friar Anthony preaching to the fish of the sea and raising a drowned girl to life.

And we have to move on because the afternoon is full of meetings.

No parish is an island. Saint Anthony is one of 30 congregations to have joined the interfaith Camden Churches Organized for People (CCOP), which the city’s newspaper has praised as the “most effective community organization in the city.” Minister Eric Parr of Camden Bible Tabernacle welcomes a lunch-hour crowd of a dozen pastors to a CCOP “clergy caucus” on crime and invites them to share about their efforts and their faith.

Struggle is a common theme. Rev. Willie Anderson, the group’s chairman, sets the bar for candor. “It’s work,” he says emphatically of his inner-city ministry, which involves as many visits to jails and the doorsteps of drug dens as it does to the pulpit. “Jesus Christ is needed in Camden.”

“For me the frustration is that I want to minister in Camden,” Weiksnar throws in. “I want to be over at the school. I want to be preparing my homilies. . . . But—and I have to leave in a few minutes—I spend all my time at administrative meetings. . . . When do you actually get to do the ministry?” Nods and chuckles ripple around the table, and Weiksnar says his goodbyes.

When the city of Camden couldn’t function independently, the state took over, and the mayor, the pastors say, is a rarely seen figurehead. CCOP director Joe Fleming explains the organization’s achievements in advocating for “problem-solving community policing” with the city council and the police department. Fleming describes the approach as “not just arresting people, but trying to shape the environment . . . to make [it] less hospitable” to drug trafficking and violence. Meanwhile, the accelerating murder rate has the city on pace for just under 100 for the year, a staggering total for a city of 80,000. The pastors crave consistent leadership. But, Fleming asks, do you sense a fragile momentum? Yes, they grant cautiously. Yes, we do.

Out in the sunlight, Reverend Anderson is greeted warmly by a mountainous man in a red sweatsuit, the leader of a drug set that has gathered on the porch of a house just across the alley where the pastors have parked. As we stroll to our cars, Marge Walmsley of Hope Memorial Baptist tells me about well-meaning journalism that hasn’t helped, such as Time magazine’s 1992 article, “Who Could Live Here?” which depicted Camden as the end of society’s rope. “Here I am, living in Camden,” Walmsley says with a shrug and a smile. “I don’t think it’s so bad.”

Grace in action
On the wall in Weiksnar’s office—the tidy, downstairs one where he receives visitors, not the private, upstairs chaos where stacks of books and paper sag precariously into one another—hangs a photograph of a neatly groomed, blond-haired boy sitting in jacket and tie with a prayer book in one hand and a rosary on his lap. That’s little William John, who became “Jud” as a tot when his sister couldn’t get her tongue around his name.

He wondered if he would become a priest. He liked incense and bells and stained glass, fresh flowers and—like Saint Francis—a clean church. “There’s one little girl who sings in the choir,” Weiksnar tells me over a meal of beans and rice and beef pastelillos at Nery’s, a Dominican eatery two blocks up the street. “She’s in the third grade. After confessions one day she came up to me and said, ‘Father Jud, that was so beautiful. I love being in the church, and I wish I could just live there.’”

That was Weiksnar at her age. Older, he quit religion class “because it was so boring.” His enthusiasm was restored in high school by a nun who introduced him to synopses of Karl Rahner and had him read the Bible for the first time. At Notre Dame he says he discovered how powerful liturgy can be, and he thanks his sister for shaping his life there, too. Noting his interest in faith and football, she had urged him to apply.

He was an average student and has regrets about his major—accounting—which he chose because he knew he’d need a job. He went to Mass, even on weekdays, developed an affection for Father Bill Toohey’s homilies, attended football and basketball games, volunteered at Logan Center, drank at Corby’s and jogged the lake paths. He took a diluted Urban Plunge in his hometown, Buffalo, staying overnight in his parents’ suburban home. His few claims to notoriety came as one of the authors of a short-lived satirical column in The Observer called “The Talking Head” and as a co-signer of a letter critical of parietals that earned him and some fellow RAs a cautionary meeting in the Student Affairs office of Father Greg Green, CSC.

On the other hand, there was his year in Angers, France, and the friends who still hold their own reunions. He credits that experience with honing his skills as an organizer and his knack for patient persistence. On balance, he’s convinced he left his alma mater in 1979 a better person. “Sometimes God’s grace works through the Notre Dame experience to get the most out of us,” he says.

A vital ministry
Friday morning at Francis House, the fourth building belonging to the parish, I meet Eddie. Sue Piliro tells me his story. “Twenty-seven years HIV-positive, dead and back five times,” she says. “I found him in a nursing home, and he has a family, but because he’s positive they don’t want him.”

Eddie is sitting on the floor of the “Room of All Faiths,” at one time the chapel of the old convent that stands across the parking lot from the friary and the church. He is singing along with Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You,” swaying and moving his legs to the blasting beat. A group of college volunteers sits attentively in the pews and, as the music fades, bursts into applause. “This is therapy for him,” Piliro explains on our way to the lunch room. “He can’t speak real well, but he wants to sing, so he puts on shows for people to calm [himself] down.”

Secular Franciscans, a lay order that prays and works under Francis’ spiritual patronage, started this outreach to impoverished AIDS patients in the church basement in 1996. The concept, Piliro says, was “a meal centered around Jesus, where people with the virus could come and not feel judged.” Many of the 50 regulars stay after lunch for health and life-skills classes. The program served 127 meals its first year. Now the doors are open three times a week, and the annual meal total has passed 4,000.

For Piliro, Francis House comes from the heart. She lost both brothers to AIDS within two months of each other in 1993. Her father had disowned them. At first, she helped in the kitchen, slowly finding the strength to interact with the people. Seven years ago she became the director, and five years ago she persuaded the then-pastor to let her use the empty convent with its large kitchen and lunch room as home base. Still, nothing felt permanent. Every time a pastor goes, she prays for an advocate. Even Weiksnar didn’t seem to get it at first. But after spending the day at Francis House about six months after he arrived, the two sat down together. “He had tears in his eyes and he said to me, ‘This ministry is so vital and important. It will be here as long as I am.’”

Eddie enters the lunch room and plants a kiss on Piliro’s cheek. She gets up from the table, her eyes full of tears. “They’re all my kids,” she says.

A volunteer rings the lunch bell and about 30 of us clasp hands to say grace. Prayers are offered “for the homeless and the hungry” and other intentions. At least one goes up “for my family.” A solemn chorus responds, “Amen.”

Trash art
Campbell’s Soup, the recording studio and the color television are Camden’s proudest contributions to world culture. The city claims Walt Whitman as its bequest to the arts (Whitman moved here in poor health late in life and supposedly crafted the “deathbed edition” to Leaves of Grass while living in a house on Mickle Street). But it is a New Jersey poet who saw the downside of American industrialization, William Carlos Williams, the physician son of an English father and a Puerto Rican mother, who might better serve as Camden’s poet laureate.

“When I was younger/it was plain to me/I must make something of myself,” Williams began his 1917 poem “Pastoral.”

Older now
I walk back streets
admiring the houses
of the very poor:
roof out of line with sides
the yards cluttered
with old chicken wire, ashes,
furniture gone wrong;
the fences and outhouses
built of barrel-staves
and parts of boxes, all,
if I am fortunate,
smeared a bluish green
that properly weathered
pleases me best
of all colors.

No one
will believe this
of vast import to the nation.

Daniel Bourdua knows about color. As one of the Franciscan volunteers, he started Another Person’s Treasure, a trash art project based at the parish. Most Saturday afternoons kids are in the church basement creating collages and sculptures with colorful bits of refuse salvaged from the neighborhood. Fabric, buttons, paper, cellophane and crushed cans are common. Erasmo Rivera’s recent creation is exemplary: a gardener, maybe 8 inches tall, with a golden bell hat, bottlecap eyes and a body of twisted wire.

The program earned Bourdua a commendation from the city. Several works are on display at the Walt Whitman Arts Center. Now Bourdua has launched Cramer Hill Frames, a club where children learn basic photography and travel to art shows and museums around South Jersey and Philadelphia. He praises Weiksnar’s advocacy and talks about care and consistency in making these projects last. A Georgia native, Bourdua took a job at the local Center for Family Services. “You’ve got to be able to stay,” he says.

As the artists work, volunteers offer tax advice across the basement. Many such services are coordinated by Victoria Walters, whom Weiksnar credits with miracles in arranging everything from free eye exams to Eucharistic ministry for homebound parishioners.

Upstairs, two of this year’s Franciscan volunteers are supervising a rehearsal for the Holy Week play. The priests are hearing first confessions from many of the 48 adults who would be confirmed in the Church at the Easter vigil. When Weiksnar emerges from the confessional, half an hour after schedule, he looks like a man who’s had about 10 hours of restorative sleep.

‘Grace through chaos’
I sit down with Vicky Walters on Palm Sunday morning, but I have to wait an hour after the 9:30 Mass because she’s in a back pew surrounded by parishioners who might need one of a thousand things.

“I try to do the best I can, even though sometimes we don’t have the resources,” Walters says. It’s not for lack of effort, but some things are outside the parish’s control. Weiksnar has told me the story of Licelot Rodriguez, the former development director, who ran into immigration trouble when she went home to visit her ailing son in the Dominican Republic and could not re-enter the country.

Walters’ job is to overcome fear. Undocumented Catholics are afraid to register in the parish so she explains the benefits, such as tuition aid, social services and sacramental preparation for their children. Many are too embarrassed to ask at the friary for food; Walters builds those relationships and encourages the families that need it the most.

A social worker in the Dominican Republic, the university-educated Walters studied information systems. Now a U.S. citizen, she moved here before she learned English. “They trust me because I’m an immigrant,” she says. She tries to see everyone as equal, but admits to special compassion for the vulnerable.

“Grace through chaos.” It was the motto of a parish Weiksnar served years ago and he borrows it freely now. At the 12:10 Mass in English, Brothers John Quinn and Jerry Hudson greet people and hand out generous fistfuls of palm leaves, not the usual single blade. I’m trying to manage them and my bulletin when I step out into the sunlight to find Weiksnar in the parking lot talking to Kathleen Fletcher and her four teenage daughters.

Lupe is there, too, doing her ministry. She skips circles around the group and navigates the lively come-and-go of foot and vehicle traffic. She darts at the girls to seize their attention and skitters away, dodging their legs and outstretched arms, full of play, full of joy, full of hope, free from fear.

John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.