Status: Active, Roman Catholic
10th & Mechanic Streets
Camden, NJ 08104
Original visit: September 27, 2008
Where Is It?
10th & Mechanic Streets, in (eeek) Camden, NJ.
Usually one trip to Camden is enough for most people, but not the Project! I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drum. Where others see a ghetto, I see an opportunity. This week, that opportunity is named St. Joseph.
I once noted that Hunting Park’s St. Veronica was a “true treasure lost in a minefield.” You can say the same thing about St. Joseph. Tucked away in the middle of a Camden war zone, it just happens to be one of the greatest churches the Project has seen.
Surprised? So am I.
But there’s no denying this church’s excellence. It’s an opulent cruciform Baroque design, complete with richly detailed paint and mural work, especially in the apse, and the finest set of stained glass windows we have encountered. Seriously. I dare you to take a look at the large transept ones and not be amazed. My hackneyed photographs scarcely do them justice, but believe me: they’re the real deal.
When evaluating churches, the first impression usually tells the story. And walking into St. Joseph, I got the same sense of amazement and wonder that I got when I first entered St. John the Baptist.
Sure, there are things to nitpick. Aside from a couple of nice oxidized-copper spires, the outside isn’t much to write home about. The interior décor is derailed by ugly red carpet. The stations of the cross are underwhelming. And it could be a little bigger.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter. St. Joseph is so beautiful, and so well-done, that it’s heads and shoulders above most everything else in this area. We’ve seen some great Baroque churches: St. Peter the Apostle, Nativity BVM and St. Thomas Aquinas, among others. St. Joseph puts them all to shame, and makes it look easy.
This place is a prime example of why the Project exists in the first place.
How's It Doing?
You’d imagine a random parish in the middle of Camden would be doing pretty poorly. And you’d likely be right, except that St. Joseph is a Polish national parish. National parishes are like cults; they tend to do well regardless of neighborhood boundaries, and that’s the case here.
Despite being surrounded by an area that looks like it’s never even seen a Polish person, the parish continues to draw such a crowd. It even still offers mass in Polish. Yep, no It’s All Greek to Me! here.
The building has some wear and tear and spots of obvious damage, but the church has been named a New Jersey historic site, and has received a matching grant for renovation and repairs. They obviously have some way to go—or perhaps they haven't even started yet—but it’s a step in the right direction. It’s nice to see a government agency, for once, recognizing the inherent beauty and history in these structures, and taking the appropriate steps.
Our first trip to Camden was pretty stress-free. This one...not so much. That’s what I get for leaving the downtown area. “But Project,” you’re probably thinking, “You’ve braved 6th & Tioga, 24th & Lehigh, and F & Westmoreland. Is 10th & Mechanic really that bad?”
Rest assured: Camden is exactly as awful as its reputation suggests. Luckily, St. Joseph’s has a lot, so you’ll have no need to leave the church property. Do so at your own peril. I went across the street to take some exterior shots, and after being accosted by a mumbling, golden-toothed vagrant, I decided to cut my losses and run for safety.
Stay on church property and you’ll live. Leave and you may very well die. Sound harsh? Yeah, but that’s Camden for you.
Like I said, a true treasure lost in a minefield. Step lightly and you’ll be handsomely rewarded.
As I mentioned above, the church is cruciform Baroque. That’s really unique because most Baroque and Italian-Renaissance churches in this area are non-cruciform. Only a select few are designed like that, and even fewer use columns, too.
The Final Word
If you haven’t already decided to see this church, there’s something seriously wrong with you.