IV. THE FORWARD YEARS|
All the men who held the position of pastor at St. Joseph's until this time had served the parish well, each attending to the needs of his particular tenure. The priest who came to Camden on September 28, 1934, however, was a man of vision who would serve the parish with particular distinction. This was the Right Reverend Monsignor Arthur B. Strenski, P.A.
Mr. Zachary wrote a biography of Monsignor Strenski in 1955, when the pastor was celebrating his fiftieth year in the priesthood According to this book; he was born in the village of Wojsk in Poland on October 6, 1880 to August and Antoinette Strenski. When he was six his father died, and five years later he emigrated to New York with his mother and siblings. (One of Arthur's brothers, Emil, would also go on to become a priest and a monsignor.) His mother was a multilingual woman who established and ran a private school in New York to support her children.
Arthur Strenski attended St. Francis Xavier College in New York and St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore before his ordination on June 21, 1905, at the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore. On the following day he said his first Mass at his brother Emil's parish, St. Joseph's, in Jamaica, New York.
He served as a curate at three different parishes, first assisting at Sacred Heart in South Amboy under the Reverend Francis Czernecki (who would later serve as pastor of St. Joseph's.) Later, at St. Peter's in New Brunswick and at St. James in Jamesburg, he discovered something important about his vocation. As the visiting chaplain for two State Homes for Boys, he became interested in the problems of youth, and thereafter decided to devote himself to the prevention of such problems. He was convinced that Catholic education could help children avoid the sad stories he saw in the Boy's Homes.
In 1910, Father Strenski was assigned his first pastorship, taking over when Father Czernecki fell ill at Sacred Heart in South Amboy. He remained there for fifteen years and concentrated his energies on improving parish education facilities. He was transferred to St. Hedwig's in Trenton in 1925. During his ten years of duty there, he supervised the building of a new church, school, and Junior High. On June 26, 1926, Pope Pius XI made Father Strenski a Domestic Prelate.
He was still at St. Hedwig's when the Great Depression struck the country in 1929. Father Martin Lipinski, who served as Monsignor's assistant for a time, once remarked to a visitor that he had been surprised, on arriving at his posts at the lack of furnishings in the rectory. There was one chair in the office. The furniture, Father Lipinski told his visitors had been sold by Monsignor Strenski to help the parish poor.
St. Joseph's Reaches a Peak
Five years later, when Father Czernecki retired as pastor of St. Joseph's, Bishop Moses E. Kiley appointed Monsignor Strenski as his successor in the Camden parish.
Mr. Zachary provided a description of the Monsignor in a 1955 biography. He writes that the priest was "not the impressive man one could imagine while reading an account of his activities." He was a little above average in height but looked taller because of his slight frame. "He is soft-spoken and never raises his voice in excitement or when he is trying to score a point. He is pleasant to talk to and while listening he will impress you with his interest."
One of Monsignor's first acts was to reactivate the church societies and to ask of all his parishioners what most successful leaders ask: for patience, cooperation, hard work sacrifice and perseverance. During his thirty-two year pastorship, Monsignor Strenski's congregation gave him their best efforts. Under his quiet, confident leadership the parish thrived.
To make room for expanded parish activities, the basement of the school was re-excavated, deepened and renovated into a combination hall and cafeteria, now known as the Lower Hall.
In 1936, Monsignor acquired seventeen and a half acres in Chews Landing, about eight miles from Camden, on which he developed a cemetery. While the land was being cleared in preparation for Memorial Day, when Bishop Kiley would publicly bless the cemetery, a dying thirteen-year-old girl named Dorothy Popiolek expressed a wish to be the first to be buried there. The pastor altered his original plans and performed a private blessing on the spot where the girl now lies. It is strangely fitting that this young girl's name in Polish means "little ashes."
Two additional purchases of land eventually increased the cemetery's acreage to thirty-three and its total capacity to more than 10,000 graves.
In the fall of that year, Monsignor turned his attention to his favorite project: education. A Junior High School was established in the parish, eventually requiring the leasing of two nearby vacant stores for classrooms.
In 1938, Monsignor Strenski received three important appointments in the newly formed Camden Diocese. He was named Diocesan Consulters Presiding Judge of the Marriage Tribunal, and Examiner of the Junior Clergy. The following year, Monsignor's plans for further development of the parish schools were interrupted and put on hold with the advent of the Second World War.
According to Mr. Zachary:
The war began with the surprise attack on Poland by Germany on September 1, 1939. Hundreds of parishioners were streaming out of the church after eleven o'clock High Mass while newspaper boys greeted them with shouts to buy a special Sunday War Extra published by the weekday Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. The bold headline declared England and France were at war with Germany, redeeming a pledge to aid beleaguered Poland.
The United States entered the war on December 7, 1941, after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. St. Joseph's sent 1,630 young men and women to join the armed forces. Food, gasoline and other resources were rationed. Victory gardens were planted. Monsignor Strenski was appointed a public member of the U.S. War Labor Board and spoke at numerous War Bond rallies and patriotic gatherings. In all, 37 parish sons were killed in the war; their names are listed on the Honor Roll plaque which hangs in the vestibule of the church.
On June 6, 1944, the St. Joseph's Chapel Annex opened at a site some eight city blocks from the church. Four well-attended Masses were said there on Sunday to relieve congestion at the main church.
Four years earlier, Monsignor Strenski, demonstrating concern for the elderly, had established St. Mary's Home for the Aged on Kresson Road in Cherry Hill. He invited the Little Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of Stara-Wies, Poland, to staff the Homes and in September of 1940, three Sisters arrived. (This is now St. Mary's Nursing Home, which has expanded to include a Village of St. Mary's for Senior Citizens.)
When the war ended, Monsignor again took up his banner of education. St. Joseph's High School was established in 1946. Three years later the school was accredited, and with the 34 members of the first graduating class looking on, ground was broken for a new school building on Mt. Ephraim Avenue near St. Joseph's Church Annex.
The project was slated to cost more than a million dollars. The undaunted pastor was aided in the project by countless "angels," as he called them, clergy and laity who worked and sacrificed to help him complete it.
Various area contractors and industrialists donated their services or contributed financially to the school fund. Every day, Monsignor personally inspected progress at the site. His assistants grew used to accepting promissory notes in lieu of a check on payday. Work continued for three years, then, on August 8, 1951 Bishop Eustace officiated at the laying of the cornerstone. On November 27,1952, the school was dedicated.
In this endeavor, as in most of Monsignor's efforts to promote Catholic education, the parish benefited from the continued and invaluable presence of the Felician teaching sisters, who staffed the new school.
While the school project was underway Monsignor had received yet more recognition for his work for the Catholic Church. On May 20, 1949, Pope Pius XII named him a Protonotary Apostolic. (This gave him, at certain times some specified privileges, which were normally reserved for Bishops.) In 1950, he was appointed Director of the Diocesan Displaced Persons Bureau.
With the ending of the Korean War in 1953, government home loans to veterans spurred a suburban housing boom. This began the long slow flight from the cities, which weakened many urban parishes. Monsignor Strenski could not understand what drew his parishioners away from the solid community which all had worked so hard to build.
Monsignor celebrated his golden Sacerdotal Jubilee at the age of seventy-five in 1955. Eight hundred members of the parish joined in an impressive tribute to him held in the high school auditorium. In 1958, he doubled the size of the high school, allowing for broader curricula and increasing the student body to nearly 900 students.
Counting the years of his ministry at St. Joseph's, together with the years spent at Sacred Heart in South Amboy and St. Hedwig's in Trenton, Monsignor Strenski labored in the role of Good Shepherd for forty-five years.
It was at St. Joseph's he achieved his greatest distinction in the educational field. With the help of God and loving parishioners, he was able to found a parochial high school - his cherished dream come true; the keystone placed firmly into position in the gateway through which learning and success would march hand in hand for the Youth placed in his charge.
On his twenty-fifth anniversary of service of St. Joseph's Parish, Monsignor received the rare Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal, which was brought from Rome by Bishop McCarthy. He was now seventy-nine years old and developing a respiratory weakness, but during the last few years of his pastorship he renovated the church in anticipation of the Diamond Jubilee celebration of 1967. The electrical system was modernized. Fresh murals were painted on the walls and ceiling. He had earlier installed a marble communion rail, and now finished his work on the sanctuary by adding marble flooring, side altars, and a center altar which faced the congregation for the new liturgical dialogue Mass.
Monsignor Strenski's health forced him, at the age of 86, to accept Archbishop Damiano's direction to step down as pastor. He became the parish's first Pastor Emeritus on March 17, 1966, and continued to serve in this capacity for fifteen years. Monsignor Ladislaus Bazela, a former associate at St. Joseph's, was summoned to serve as administrator. He soon became the next pastor.