S. Karen Dietrich, SSJ, Ph.D., is the executive director of Camden’s Catholic Partnership Schools, a nonprofit that unites the city’s five Catholic grammar schools: St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral, Sacred Heart, Holy Name, St. Cecilia, and St. Anthony of Padua. Just five years old, this innovative, collaborative model is thriving, educating about 1000 students across its campuses. Ninety-three percent of Partnership families live below the poverty line, yet one of the partnership schools boasts a high school graduation rate of over 90% among its alumni, compared to less than 25% at the two Camden City public high schools.
S. Karen, who has worked as a high school science teacher and principal of Mount St. Joseph Academy in suburban Philadelphia, brings over 35 years of experience to the Partnership. She was gracious enough to answer a few questions for this Ampersand Catholic Schools Week feature.
Ampersand: What do you love about working with the Catholic Partnership Schools? What is most challenging?
S. Karen: Somewhere deep in my soul is a firm belief that God invited me to bring all I knew about education after 30+ years, particularly Catholic education, to the children and families of Camden. Transferring skills and having the opportunity to engage daily about such diverse activities as curriculum and leaky roofs, marketing campaigns and the role of the arts in education, analysis of assessments and implementation of literacy initiatives, and oversight of development efforts, including meeting with benefactors…all in the same week…I LOVE it! I LOVE going to see the children and watching their basketball games and building bookcases with them. There is no doubt that directing an organization that is totally responsible for ensuring a God-focused, nurturing, foundational education for 1000 children is a huge challenge. Actually, having the privilege to be part of the challenge of firmly establishing a successful model is incredibly exciting to me.
What has surprised you the most in your work? What are you most proud of?
Perhaps I was most surprised by the harsh reality so many of our children and families grapple with day in and day out. I continue to be surprised by their determination and perseverance in pursuing a better future for their children. Everyone deserves that. Our parents take first day of school pictures and stand up applauding their little ones at Christmas shows and graduations. I’m surprised when visitors exclaim, “Oh, wow…they’re just like my children.” Yes, of course they are.
I am proud of many things, for sure. I am proud that we are in our fifth year of this quite unique model and we continue to have five thriving schools, maintaining 1000 children, and that we are debt-free. I am proud that our children’s proficiency scores are steadily rising and that, although we still have a way to go, they are among the highest in the city of Camden. I rejoice that we are able to offer boys and girls athletics teams and a Partnership Choir and a 100-piece Partnership orchestra. I am proud that more and more of our children have the foundation and support to access excellent college-prep high schools. I am proud that we are establishing a replicable model for strengthening and sustaining Catholic, urban education.
What factors have contributed to your success in the city?
An incredible team…a partnership of wonderful, committed people… principals and teachers and maintenance folks and front office staff, and lunch ladies and parents and coaches and support workers and counselors and … generous donors with wide-open arms and treasures to share who believe in our children and the mission of Catholic education.
What are your hopes for the students and families who come to the Partnership for education?
That we will honor the great trust the families place in us by bringing their children to our schools. That the children will know the great promise that God has given each of them. That we will have all the resources we need to continue to fulfill our mission of providing a strong and holistic education that will set the children in our care on a path that confirms for them “a future full of hope.”
Why is the CPS initiative such a crucial project for the Catholic Church to support?
Because without question, ministering with the poor and marginalized — ministering through a faith-filled, enriching, excellent academic education — is at the very heart of the legacy and mission of the Church.
The final line from Sunday’s Good Samaritan Gospel passage is clear in its challenge: “Go and do likewise.”
Seventeen Catholic college students have been striving to answer that call in Camden this summer, living in the city and serving with various community organizations.
Back row, L to R:
Rob T.; Smithtown, NY; Molloy College. Serving with Romero Center Ministries‘ Urban Challenge Leadership Program.
Annie M.; Harrisburg, Penn.; St. Joseph’s University. Serving with Romero Center Ministries.
Colleen R.; Yorktown, NY; University of Notre Dame. Serving with St. Anthony of Padua Parish.
Colleen M.; Lakewood, Ohio; University of Notre Dame. Serving with St. Anthony of Padua Parish.
Vinh L.; Harvey, La.; University of Notre Dame. Serving with Romero Center Ministries.
Front row, L to R:
Emily M.; Wellesley, Mass.; Villanova University. Serving with Romero Center Ministries.
Karin M.; Memphis, Tenn.; University of Notre Dame. Serving with St. Anthony of Padua Parish.
Christine C.; Cherry Hill, NJ; University of Dayton. Serving with Romero Center Ministries.
Students serving with Romero Center Ministries’ Urban Challenge Leadership Program (UCLP) help to lead high school-aged participants through the Urban Challenge Program — week-long sessions of service, social justice education, prayer, and reflection.
Students at St. Anthony of Padua Parish, here through Notre Dame’s Summer Service Learning Program, serve in a wide range of ministries at one of Camden’s urban parishes.
The Ampersand caught up with Annie M. and asked her about the summer so far.
Ampersand: So what has your group in the UCLP been up to this summer?
Annie: The work that we are doing at the Romero Center has allowed us to be more involved in the Urban Challenge program than I would have imagined. We are given the amazing opportunity to facilitate nightly reflections that allow the students to see and vocalize what their experiences in Camden have been in a different and beyond-the-surface way. We also play a main role in organizing weekly barbecues that bring the L.U.C.Y. youth (low-income youth aged 12-19 who gather for diverse programming in the Romero Center basement) and the Urban Challenge participants together. Additionally, we play a number of smaller roles such as cooking meals, managing the Facebook page, and organizing a game night for the Urban Challenge students. Additionally, we have been intentionally growing community with each other throughout the summer.
What is one thing you’ve grown to love about Camden this summer?
I’ve always loved the multicultural aspect of Camden; you can easily find a “tienda” and a Vietnamese restaurant on the same street. Throughout the day, the streets are bumped by the tunes of reggaeton, and Spanglish conversations reach my ears daily. I love living in the simultaneous diversity and togetherness of this community.
What is one thing you’ve learned that will stick with you into the future?
I’ve learned the power of a relationship. A relationship involves two people who view each other equal in their human dignity; one is not there to “save” the other, and one is not there to be “saved.” Wanting only for presence and company, both are there because they are totally for and with the other person.
Perdona a tu pueblo, Señor. Perdona a tu pueblo, perdónale, Señor.
Hundreds of us sing this refrain, over and over, as we process through the streets of East Camden on Good Friday.
We stop 14 times along the way, and parishioners from St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral act out each Station of the Cross.
We pray in Spanish and English for those who are suffering, especially in the city — those who connect with the Passion of Christ too well.
We pass houses that look like they’re abandoned, and then see faces of children gather at second-floor windows, watching us walk by.
Forgive your people, O Lord.
Traveling on foot through a city that lives passion and death everyday, with people who are praying and working for resurrection, Good Friday makes more sense than it ever has.
Join in this powerful tradition this year:
Friday, March 29, 12:00 pm
St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral
2907 Federal Street
Other parishes in the city, including Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Sacred Heart, and St. Anthony of Padua, host similar processions.
Bishop Sullivan’s birthday is on St. Patrick’s Day — not bad for an Irish-American bishop! We threw him a little céilí last week at the Pastoral Center before he headed up to NYC to celebrate Mass kicking off the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
An Irish folk musician came to the party, and before long Bishop Sullivan was up at the front of the room, leading the 40 or 50 of us in “Wild Mountain Thyme.” I was a few seconds late with the camera and shot it vertically instead of horizontally (which explains the black bars on either side of the video), but Bishop’s strong voice comes through loud and clear. It was a great moment.
This post misses St. Paddy’s by a few days, but it’s good to be Irish all year round. And I’ll hope it serves as a blessing on the Notre Dame Fightin’ Irish basketball teams, set to take the court in the NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments this weekend. (The men’s team, at least, needs all the grace it can get if we hope to avoid a first-round loss.)
Brother Mickey McGrath, OSFS, is a world-renowned artist living and working in Camden. I stopped by his studio near Sacred Heart Church in the Waterfront South neighborhood to ask him about his art, his decision to move to Camden four years ago, the role of art in the pursuit of justice, and a current exhibition at Rutgers called “Visions of Camden,” which features his work.
The original plan was to transcribe the interview, but his passion, faith and humor come through so well that I decided to post it here as a podcast. If you can forgive the amateurish quality of the technology and interviewer, it’s worth a listen!
Brother Mickey describes how he came to Camden at the invitation of Fr. Michael Doyle, pastor of Sacred Heart Church, who offered him studio space. A previously unoccupied house was remodeled and transformed into a mini gallery and workspace.
Searching for and creating beauty in a city in need of it, he has been inspired by those who work to make Camden a better place:
“I see so much good going on: like the Romero Center, Hopeworks. Right here at Sacred Heart – the Center for Transformation. Up at the Cathedral where three parishes have been merged together and the fact that they give out at least 450-500 sandwiches everyday. It’s just kind of amazing, the goodness of people who are out there trying to do good things and create beauty. And my way of adding to that beauty is through paint,” Mickey says.
“I have a deeper sense of ministry in terms of my artistic vocation than I have ever had before.”
In addition to painting his famous religious images, Brother Mickey has sketched the city since he arrived, inspired by the neighborhoods and people he encounters, especially on early-morning walks.
Many of these urban pieces are featured in the current “Visions of Camden” exhibition at Rutgers-Camden, which is open until March.
In the podcast, Mickey describes some of the memorable Camden moments that made their way into his art, including this image of a woman bringing her grandson to school at Sacred Heart in her motorized wheelchair, with his arms outstretched “like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic.” It’s moments like these, he said, that give him hope for the city.
“Visions of Camden” is open through February 28 at Rutgers-Camden’s Stedman Gallery. The Stedman Gallery is located in the Fine Arts Complex on Third Street, between Cooper Street and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge on the Rutgers-Camden campus. Admission is free to the gallery, which is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and until 8 p.m. on Thursdays.
The second installment of our weekly Top 5 L&J links from around the Web.
As covered here last week, St. Anthony of Padua in Camden sponsored the nation’s only MLK Day of Community Organizing on Monday. I sat in on a couple of meetings, in which student groups talked to Camden board of education member Sean Brown and Camden County freeholder Louis Cappelli, Jr. The students described challenges facing their neighborhoods and asked the leaders to take action.
Powerful passage: “It’s not easy being a pastor in Camden,” [Fr. Jud] Weiksnar said. “But when you’ve got a group of kids like this, it helps you keep the hope alive.”
Not worth trying to sum up here. It’s extremely good.
Powerful passage: We should not be disheartened or bitter if many of our fellow citizens do not heed us at this moment, nor should we pull back on our efforts to join hands with others to improve the lot of suffering people in need just because they don’t fully agree with us on everything. The truth will win out and we have to believe that a nation whose collective heart can break and grieve for babies slaughtered in Newtown has the capacity and God’s grace to one day grieve for the babies killed in the womb.
A neat interview with Bishop Dennis Sullivan of Camden, who talks a lot about his experience ministering with people living in material poverty.
Powerful passage: [Bishop Sullivan] said he subscribes to the Second Vatican Council’s vision of the Catholic Church as a “people of God,” with no exalted status for the hierarchy. As bishop he often took the subway to conduct confirmations (68 last year), sometimes shocking pastors who “wanted to know where my car and driver were.”At his Camden news conference 12 days ago, Sullivan declared the diocese would “do everything we can” to help the people of Camden “give up the violence, give up the guns” that led to 67 homicides last year.
An art exhibit called “Visions of Camden” at Rutgers features the work of Br. Mickey McGrath, OSFS.
Powerful passage: While [McGrath’s] religious paintings are large canvases reflecting biblical narratives, the small acrylic cityscapes on display at Rutgers-Camden were literally ripped from his sketchbook — perforated edges torn from the book binding can still be seen.
“They’re more than a diversion. I don’t see them differently from the religious stuff,” said McGrath. “When I’m painting them, I get caught up in the same contemplative, peaceful moment as I do whether it’s an icon of a Madonna. It’s all good.”
Powerful passage: Every feminist knows that in any just society, girls and women are well-educated and work in the economy. The questions, then, are whether education and child-rearing are compatible with the goals of education and work, and whether abortion favorably affects a woman’s educational and professional outcomes. Pro-choice feminists hold that if women and men are to have equal educational and professional opportunities, then women need to have abortion on demand so they can stay in school and keep their jobs and future opportunities.
A better feminism would help women value who they really are—persons able to contribute great good to the world not only through their education and work but also through childbearing. This feminism would advocate educational and professional accommodations for pregnant women.
All over the country this coming Monday, hundreds of thousands of people will participate in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Community Service in honor of King’s legacy.
While King indeed talked about the importance of serving those in need, he spent his ministry leading an organized, nonviolent movement for civil rights. As someone confronted by the oppression of racism in the US, King walked with and empowered others who were also facing injustice.
His career was dedicated to standing up to systemic injustice, and working for structural change.
“On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act,” King said. “One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
There are few places where the edifice needs more restructuring than the City of Camden. It is consistently ranked among the poorest and most dangerous cities in the country.
But a group of students from Camden’s St. Anthony of Padua School have been taking King’s message to heart the past few years, meeting with local officials in attempt to make the park next to their school a safer, cleaner place.
On Monday, this group, the Student Leaders’ Von Nieda Park Task Force, will welcome about 50-80 7th-10th graders from throughout the city and suburbs to attend the nation’s only MLK Day of Community Organizing. (To learn more about faith-based community organizing in Camden, click here.)
You are also encouraged to attend! Some event details:
- The day will begin at 10am and will include a skit by the Faith Tabernacle Youth Group and a walking tour of community organizing achievements in the Cramer Hill neighborhood of Camden, where St. Anthony is located.
- The highlight of the day is a youth-led meeting with officials at 1:30pm. Members of the School Board, Sean Brown and Ray Lamboy, will address Camden public school issues while Freeholder Ian Leonard and Shahid Rana from Cooper’s Ferry Community Development will address park safety issues. The day will end at 3:00 pm.
- Location: St. Anthony of Padua Church at 2818 River Rd, Camden, NJ 08105
Hope to see you there. Make Monday a day on, not a day off.