In 1942, Bishop Bartholomew A. Eustace of the Camden Diocese described the founders of St. Joseph's in a letter written on the occasion of the parish's fiftieth anniversary:

To the new land they brought the gaiety and the pathos, the lilt and the song, the tear and the sigh of a thousand years of Christian worship. Yet they were lonely- lonely for the sound of the bells of their native Churches, lonely for the bannered processions...lonely for the hundred exquisite practices...of Catholic Faith. Who can find it in his heart to blame them if they tried to save as many of these things as they could, and if, in the lovely accents of their own sweet tongues they repeated in the new land the old story of their courteous allegiance to the King of Kings?

The Camden Poles faced several difficulties in attempting to establish a church. First, as a group, they were too thinly scattered in different sections of the city. Second, they lacked leaders trained to organize. The immigrant generation was composed mostly of industrial workers (whose education had been limited in a captive nation) and illiterate peasants (who had lived in virtual serfdom for the landed gentry of Poland). Lastly, there was a shortage of Polish-speaking priests.

In the interim, Camden Poles attended services at two Polish churches in Philadelphia: St. Stanislaus (1891) and St. Laurentius (1885). To worship at St. Laurentius, Camdenites walked to the Ferry House at Vine Street, crossed the Delaware River to the Shackamaxon Ferry House, then walked three miles to Fishtown. From time to time, Polish-speaking Jesuit priests on mission work offered Mass at St. Joseph's on Willings Alley in Philadelphia. In the southernmost parts of Camden, such as Centerville and "Sweet Potato Hill," residents went to Sacred Heart Church (1872), when it was a mission at Eighth and Van Hook Streets. Those living in North and East Camden attended Immaculate Conception (1864).

A high percentage of St. Joseph's future parishioners would be Prussian immigrants. These German-speaking Polish Catholics attended Mass at SS. Peter and Paul, then located at Fourth and Division Streets.

The Founders

On the Sunday afternoon of January 27, 1891, thirty men gathered in the home of Joseph Wojtkowiak in the 1100 block of Kaighn Avenue. They formed a St. Joseph's Society, an offshoot of a group formed four years earlier in a Philadelphian parish. The Society, named for the patron saint of workers and fatherhood, would give a new parish in South Camden its name.

After invoking the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the group selected eight committeemen. It charged them with the responsibility of formulating plans for the establishment of a Polish Roman Catholic Church. Those elected as officers were: Valentine Pepeta, President; Adalbert Mazur, Vice President; Theodore Walters Treasurer; Valentine Meksa, Financial Secretary; and Vincent Michalak, Joseph Wojtkowiak and John Rozycki, Directors. Jacob Slomkowski was later name Recording Secretary.

A resolution was passed which levied upon each family a monthly assessment of 50 cents for the support of the church program. At this first meeting, a sum of $226 was given to the treasury. Meetings of the St. Joseph Society were held regularly, with the number of its members and the contributions to its coffers steadily increasing.

Twenty-one months after the inception of the St. Joseph's Society, the parish was launched. On October 24, 1892, the founders filed papers of incorporation. Bishop Michael O'Farrel in Trenton became President of the Board of Trustees. Vicar General Very Reverend James McFaul was Vice President, Reverend Michael Baranski became Secretary-Treasurer, and Adalbert Mazur and Paul Rakowski were named lay members of the Board.

One hundred and seventy-eight families founded St. Joseph's Parish.

St. Joseph's Mission Church rented a one-story clapboard building off Broadway near Kaighn Avenue for use as a temporary church. (This was later the site of Camden Trust Company's South Camden Branch). The parishioners were aided in the selection of the building by Father Dean Mulligan) pastor of Immaculate Conception.

Father Labudzinski of SS. Peter and Paul's often came to St. Joseph's as a mission priest. On his advice, five lots were purchased on the southeast corner of Mt. Ephraim and Kaighn Avenues as a probable site for a church. Efforts to keep Father Labudzinski as the parish's first pastor were unsuccessful.

With the acquisition of land, the Society asked the Chancery in Trenton to raise the mission to the status of a parish with a pastor and also requested permission to begin construction of a small church. The Bishop sent Father Stephen Szymanowski to Camden on a temporary basis to evaluate the situation. Eight months later, the priest was reassigned, and the parish was once again dependent upon visiting clergy.

In October 1893, a young Jesuit priest, Father Felix Szulborski, was transferred to Camden from St. Joseph's of Willings Alley. In poor health, he served the mission for six months with the aid of two other Jesuits, Fathers Mlynarczyk and Dynia. In February 1894, Father Szulborski died suddenly of pneumonia.

The First Pastor and the First Church

The Reverend Michael Baranski, one of the church's incorporators, came to St. Joseph's in 1894 from St. Stanislaus in South Philadelphia. He quickly lived up to a reputation as an organized administrator. Selling the land on Mt. Ephraim and Kaighn, he purchased a tract on Tenth and Liberty Streets. On August 19,1895, Father Baranski received permission from Bishop McFaul to build the long-awaited church on this land.

Parishioners dug the foundation themselves, and construction proceeded rapidly. The church was finished in 1895. It was a combination structure, with the upper floor being used as a church and the lower as a school. The altar used in the Broadway church was removed to the new building.

On the day of dedication, St. Joseph's celebrated. All the young church societies marched in procession before a vast throng of people. The colorfully uniformed Knights of St. Michael (Ulani), mounted on horses hired from livery stables, highlighted the parade. (For many years thereafter, the Knights led the procession through the city streets on May 3, the anniversary of the adoption of the 1791 Constitution by the Republic of Poland.)

St. Joseph's School began with first and second grade classes; a third grade was added in 1896 and a fourth the next year. Two lay teachers, Adam Trawinski and A. Fiust (also the organist), taught the children until 1898, when arrangements were made for the Sisters of Nazareth to staff the school. The Felician Sisters of Lodi, New Jersey, would take charge in 1900.

From 1903 to 1930) every first grade contained over 100 students taught by one Sister. In the year 1919, there were 179 students in the first grade. Because the student body was composed of immigrant children in need of instruction in English, early first grades included children of all ages.

Turn of the Century Life

For the 1967 Diamond Jubilee, Mr. Paul P. Zachary researched the everyday life of St. Joseph's founding parishioners. He wrote about these "lean, penny-pinching years" in South Camden for the Jubilees Commemorative Book. Mr. Zachary deftly and nostalgically recreated the flavor of the times; much of what he pieced together has been quoted below.

How the families lived, how they fared, and how their prayers were answered are just as important as factors of historical reference as the founding and dedication dates are, because they reflect the spirit of the day and the exact degree of progress made by both the church and the community to which they belonged...

Family heads worked at the prevailing rate of ten cents an hour, from ten to fourteen hours a day with Saturday afternoons off. An average worker earned six dollars weekly. Those who brought home ten or more dollars were considered aristocrats of labor. To augment family incomes, boarders were taken in, mainly relatives or close family friends streaming in from Europe.

Meeting the challenge of feeding a large family, with perhaps a boarder or two thrown in, required great skill on the part of the Polish housewives. They served wholesome family style meals, specializing in large pots of tantalizing soups made from plate meats and fresh garden vegetables grown in backyards and nearby idle lots, or bought from hucksters who peddled their daily specials with loud shouts around the neighborhood. Ample nourishment came from ground meat rolled in cabbage leaves (galabki),flour dumplings (pierogi and kluski), beet soup (barszcz), jellied pig's feet, home-made Polish sausages (kielbasa), and heaping portions of spare ribs and sauerkraut.

Mothers did all their cooking on flat-top coal stoves, baking their own breads and yeast cakes (babkis). Much fuel was used, but for economic purposes, nothing was wasted. Ashes were emptied out and sifted for hard coal to ensure that nothing was lost. The warmth of those old-fashioned stoves and the delectable aroma of bread baking in the oven in the wintertime can never be replaced by anything modern for those who have experienced such pleasures.

Conditions of the neighborhood were primitive. In the outlying districts, every backyard had its own well-water pump. Until the sewer lines were installed and then extended, plumbing was of the outdoor variety. The 1900 house had no electricity, no indoor bathroom (or a very skimpy one at best) minimum kitchen fixtures, and no central heat. Rooms were heated by space heaters which used coal, gas or oil.

Before the dawn of the electrical machine age, factory equipment was operated either by hand or by steam power, and shift work in industry was virtually unknown. Where gas was unavailable, lighting came from kerosene oil lamps. Transportation to and from work was made by nickel fare trolleys, ferries or by a sturdy pair of legs. With the advent of the automobile, ten-cent jitney (bus) service competed with trolleys for the riding public.

As industrial workers, men found employment in a number of diversified fields, such as Campbell Soup Company, Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA) [now GE], Esterbrook Pen Company, International Nickel Works, Farr & Bailey (linoleum products), MacAndrew & Forbes (licorice), Armstrong Cork Company, Eavenson-Leverings and Howland Croft woolen mills. Those who traveled to Philadelphia found work at the huge Baldwin Locomotive Works (located on Broad Street), sugar plants of Quaker, MacCahan's and Pennsylvania, or at many of the small iron and brass foundries in the area.

The Camden-Philadelphia area at the time was the world's center for leather tanning. Some of the major tanneries employing workers of the parish in their "morocco shops" or "garbarnias," as the Poles called them, were Keystone Leather, Allied Kid, Castle Kid, McNeely's, John R. Evans and Surpass Leather. New York Shipbuilding Corporation, formed in 1898, was where most of the younger men were hired, including some fourteen year olds who falsified their ages. It was a common practice in those days to see bright children, whose parents needed financial aid drop out of school between the ages of twelve and fourteen.

Birth records were haphazardly kept by city and state agencies, and certificates had little value to the employment managers who needed immediate help. It wasn't until 1920 that birth records became mandatory in all the states of the nation. Without official certificates, Polish names which were hard to pronounce or spell were changed at the whim of a writer's pen. No one seemed worried, however, if at work they were fictitiously known as Smith, Johnson, Brown, Miller, Burke, or some other popular surname.

The long hours worked by fathers kept many of them from enjoying normal family relations with their children until the weekends. They left for work while the children were still asleep. When they returned home from work, the youngsters were back in bed between the hours of seven and nine regularly every evening.

There were no movie houses, radios or television to distract the school children's attention from homework assignments. The young filled the churches for Lenten devotions on Wednesday and Friday evenings and Vesper services Sunday afternoons. They went willingly.

Home entertainment usually centered around gramophones or "Victrolas." Later, the player piano became popular. The more affluent were entertained at operas, theatrical stage plays, concerts and vaudeville shows. Summertime band concerts in public parks were free to all.

Socially, there were many fancy costume balls and polka dances, mixed with popular and folk music, in public halls. At home, the flowery backyard gardens provided the setting for family and neighborly visits. The ladies would chat while knitting or crocheting, and the men folk found relaxation with playing cards, either pinochle or "Sixty-Six." A glass of beer was called a "growler," and the person drinking it was "chasing the duck." Every family treasured a white agate pitcher, which poured ten to twelve glasses of beer for ten cents.

Expectant mothers were the community "pets, " and all the ladies in the block helped with ordinary home chores until the new mother was on her feet again. Except in extreme cases, children were born at home.

Godparents, the "kumoszka i kumoter," automatically became blood relatives. As the children grew, they respectfully addressed their godparents as "chrzestna matka" and "chrzestny ojciec." They were as revered as natural parents, because they were the first to bring the children to God.

A woman's world was tightly wrapped around domestic life. Employment opportunities and business careers for girls were scarce. Clerical and secretarial work was performed by young men with a business college background.

Some twelve- and fourteen-year-old girls, dropping out of school, found jobs in a Camden lace factory or in small clothing factories, or they learned how to roll hand-made cigars. They jokingly referred to the cigar factory as a finishing school" or 'college. " Some worked in woolen mills. On the way home from work, tiny wisps of wool still clung to their hair or clothing, and passing boys teasingly hailed them as "cotton dollies."

Daughters learned to cook, bake, sew, iron clothes, and care for the younger children while preparing for an eligible swain's proposal. The wedding feast took place in the bride's home, usually lasting more than one day for "poprawiny" (improvements). There were no bridal showers. Expensive wedding gifts were rare. (One bride recalled receiving enough framed holy pictures to hang in every room of her home.) Honeymoons were only for the rich, and without the aid of air-conditioning a bride truthfully earned a money purse when she danced the "wianek" around her crown of myrtle, which was placed in the center of the dance floor. Changing partners dropped money into the wreath for the privilege of dancing one swift whirl around the floor with the bride.

In 1898 with the advent of the Spanish-American War, Francis Matyasik became the first parish son on record to enlist in a foreign war. Several other neighborhood youths also joined the service.

In the late 1890s, Father Baranski formed the Kosciuszko Savings and Loan Association to enable parishioners to buy homes in the neighborhood. With the help of small contractors, Father built houses on empty lots and nearby farmland. He constructed two-story, semi-detached homes on Mechanic Street, brownstone row houses on Tenth Street, and homes with porch fronts on Atlantic Avenue. Houses could be purchased for $900 to $1,000. The house at the end of mechanic Street, which had a beautiful garden on the Tenth Street side, became the first rectory.

Father Baranski retired in 1901, buying the six-acre Green Farm with a small inheritance he had received. He lived there for a short time. Later, while planning a trip to Poland, he tried to sell this land to the parish as the site for a future new church. The price ($10,000) seemed too risky, and the offer was rejected with regrets. The farm would eventually become the site of West Jersey Hospital.

On March 12, 1901, the Reverend Matthias Tarnowski became St. Joseph's second pastor. Father Tarnowski gained a reputation for thriftiness during the recession of 1907, and guided the parish through difficult economic times. Almost 500 families were enrolled in the parish, with 300 children attending the school.

Despite an unfavorable economy, Father's frugality enabled him to buy a plot of land at the corner of Tenth and Mechanic Streets, which would later be the site of the present St. Joseph Church. He also equipped the Liberty Street church with steam heat and electricity. He built a new rectory adjacent to the church-school building that cost $3,578.00 and blended well with the existing brownstone structure.

Father Tarnowski died in 1910 and was buried in Calvary Cemetery. He was succeeded for two years by Father John Supinski. Upon Father Supinski's transfer, Father Stephen Wierzynski became the parish's fourth pastor, and the community entered a period of tremendous growth.