Diocese History

Racial and Ethnic Diversity

The multi-ethnic character of the Camden Diocese had its beginnings in the mid 1800’s.  A settlement of blacks in Snow Hill built St. James Church in 1865, in what is now Lawnside, below Haddonfield.  Black Catholic communities later gathered at St. Monica in Atlantic City, which was founded at the turn of the century by the saintly Emma Lewis with the help of Saint Katharine Drexel.  St. Bartholomew mission in Camden was opened in 1947.

The Germans and the Irish had been the earlier settlers of South Jersey, but by the beginning of the new century there were 14,000 of Polish descent in New Jersey; hence, St. Joseph Church in Camden, and the Polish missions in Egg Harbor, Mays Landing, Swedesboro and Woodbine.

By 1900, there were over 32,000 Italians in North Jersey alone, with thousands more settling the farms surrounding Vineland, and building their first church north of Vineland in 1880.  The early presence of Italian citizens in South Jersey is a presence crucial to the growth of Catholicism in the region.

When the Diocese of Trenton was founded in 1881, 11 of its 27 priests were in South Jersey.  By 1900, 20 of the 81 parishes of Trenton were in South Jersey.  In 1884, the Fathers of Mercy established their seminary and college in Vineland, and Trenton’s bishop sent his seminarians for training and his priests for retreat to Sacred Heart College and Theological Seminary, which lasted only 10 years.

The growth of South Jersey and the Church here began to escalate at the end of the last century due to increased intertwined principles of transportation, industry and immigration.  Prosperity and mobility created a new migration to the suburbs.  The slowly developing Camden area quickly became, in a sense, Philadelphia’s suburbs.

The prosperity of the 1920's became translated into Catholic schools. During Bishop Walsh’s 10-year office in Trenton, 45 parochial and 11 secondary high schools were established.  High schools in Camden, Gloucester, Atlantic City and Penns Grove began during this era.

When Bishop Walsh went to Trenton, a good part of the region felt the strain of the Depression.  Despite the odds, the number of Catholic schools in South Jersey increased with Sacred Heart High School in Vineland and Vincent Pallotti Seminary, later St. Joseph High School in Hammonton.

With continued growth in the Catholic population during the first decades of this century, Pope Pius XI on December 9, 1937 established the Diocese of Camden for the people of the six southern-most counties of New Jersey, a region containing nearly 2,700 square miles. This also marked the time that New Jersey, previously part of the ecclesiastical province of New York, became a separate province, with the metropolitan see at Newark.

The new diocese of approximately 100,000 Catholics in 49 parishes, 31 mission churches and 35 parochial schools (thirty elementary and five secondary) was served by 75 diocesan priests and 11 priests of religious communities.  In the whole area there was not a single Catholic human services institution or school of higher learning.

South Jersey Catholics awaited the news of their first bishop.  For almost a week, they speculated on local priests who would be tough and hardened to a ministry of building and fundraising to meet the already present burdens of the parishes.