The year was 1943. Camden’s economy was booming. Shipbuilding along the waterfront bustled in support of the war effort. Neighborhoods of Italians, Poles and Jews flourished, providing a steady supply of workers for the many textile and manufacturing factories that dotted the city.
But not all residents of the community were thriving. There was a growing number of “the unfortunates” — the poor, the aged, those suffering health and housing challenges, widows and orphans.
And a handful of visionary individuals recognized this.
On April 22, 1943, the first bishop of the Camden Diocese, Bartholomew Eustace, established the office of Catholic Charities in the chancery building on Cooper Street, appointing Father Alfred W. Jess as its first director.
The fledgling organization was staffed with just four employees along with the local council president of the Saint Vincent DePaul Society. Two of the early staffers were Lilla DiStanislao and Rose McLaughlin, both teenagers at the time.
Seventy-four years later, the two women sat in Lilla’s home in Haddonfield, accompanied by her son, Bob DiStanislao, as they reflected fondly on their days at Catholic Charities.
Long before child study teams in schools and the well-established public health and social service agencies of today, Catholic Charities played a vital role in services for children: providing adoption and foster care placement, prenatal services, well baby clinics, home visitation programs, child guidance counseling and remedial reading classes.
At a time when unwed motherhood was seen by many as scandalous, “we didn’t judge them or violate confidentiality,” said Lilla. “To this day, I never have spoken a word to anyone about any of the clients we served.”
A copy of an early Catholic Charities manual provided by Bob DiStanislao seemed to underscore this commitment to compassionate care, describing the importance of providing “kindly sympathy and understanding to create in the unwed mother the courage to face the many complications which arise as a result of the situation in which she finds herself.”
Seven decades did little to dim the memories of these two former coworkers. According to Lilla, job descriptions at Catholic Charities did not fit neatly into clearly defined categories in the 1940s. Staff took on everything from receptionist and secretarial duties to caseworker and health educator responsibilities, depending on the needs of any given day. With a nod toward her son, Lilla recalled times when, as a young mother herself with an infant, she would be called upon in a pinch to make a home visit to a new adoptive mother. “If they were short-staffed and I was home with Bob, I’d just pack him in the car and take him with me to the client’s home,” laughed Lilla.
For both Lilla and Rose, the heart and soul at the founding of Catholic Charities, and the person who inspired their great dedication, was Father Jess.
Bob DiStanislao marveled at how much was accomplished in those early years with so few resources and little structural support. “Bishop Eustace would tell them to handle adoptions or address issues of poverty, and they just had to figure it out, without the formal networks or standard practice models or tools available today.”
But what Catholic Charities did have through Father Jess was his informal network of go-to people in the community when things needed to get done or someone needed help. He worked these contacts in big and small ways, including teaming up with the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany to raise funds for the construction of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in the city.
Added Lilla, “Most of our clients were referrals from other agencies, parishes and schools. Father Jess never discriminated. It didn’t matter what religion they were. He recognized the imminent need, and he did all in his power to address it, to let people know: ‘We are here! We’re here to help!’”
“And always in a very dignified and courteous manner,” added Rose. “Though he was direct, he was respectful regardless of people’s situations.”
Father Jess was able to bring a more cohesive approach to the Catholic Church’s charitable work in the diocese. Prior to the establishment of the agency, each parish was on its own to handle requests for food and housing assistance, medical care for children, help for neglected elderly, and other social services.
Catholic Charities quickly became the centralized entity through which clients could be assessed for their needs and provided for or referred to the services that were necessary.
Lilla first met Father Jess when she was very ill with tuberculosis and he was called to anoint her. When the 17- year -old girl asked him, “Am I going to die?” the priest replied, “If you don’t want to die, then don’t. I’m here to help you live.”
Lilla not only lived, but went to work for Father Jess shortly thereafter.
Over the years he became part of the DiStanislao family. “He called my children his family. My children loved him,” said Lilla. “He left an important conference in Saint Louis and immediately flew home to attend my mother’s funeral when she died. And I stayed with him until the day he died in 1976.”
Both ladies had opportunities to work elsewhere and for more money.
Rose recounted, “Once I received a call from a company in Philadelphia that wanted me to work for them. Mind you, my salary would have doubled. But I told them: ‘Oh, no! I work for Catholic Charities. I’m not leaving.’”
Similarly, Rose was offered a job at RCA. She went for an interview and was offered $35 a week.
“But I saw the work being done at Catholic Charities and got to know Father Jess. He said he’d pay me $25 per week. I took the job with him.”
Long after Lilla and Rose left Catholic Charities, they not only remained friends but also neighbors. “This is the farthest we’ve ever lived apart!” said Rose. “She lives in Haddonfield and I live in Pennsauken.”
Over the decades, populations have changed in Camden. Ethnic neighborhoods have shifted. The specific services of Catholic Charities have adapted in response to different and emerging needs. But the core conviction of the organization, etched at the bottom of every page in its 1940s manual — ‘Deus caritas est’ (God is Love) — remains immutable, and just as vibrant among the Catholic Charities staff today as it was for those two young coworkers and friends 70 years ago.
The work of Father Jess, Lilla DiStanislao and Rose McLaughlin, which shaped their personal and professional lives and the lives of thousands of South Jersey residents, continues in service to the needy and the poor of the six-county region of the Camden Diocese. And perhaps forging new lifelong friendships along the way as well.