“Come on in, come in, please excuse the mess,” Fr Colm Campbell said, opening the door to the New York Irish Center. Behind him, a pile of black refuse sacks lay stacked in the hallway from his 70th birthday party, which took place in the Center last Monday. In testament to Campbell’s popularity amongst the Irish Community in New York, over 150 people turned up to help him celebrate.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said, chuckling.
“I didn’t know what was happening, I just knew I had to be there. There were children there that I’d baptized and there were people there who were 90. I told them: ‘you’ll have me spoiled, I’ll be expecting this every 70 years.'”
Campbell moved slowly as we walked around the Center’s ground level, which still smells of fresh paint. Heart problems forced him into retirement as head of the U.S. office of the Irish Apostolate in January of last year. Since then, he has lost 63 lbs and been hospitalized 12 times. But illness hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm.
“Its just out of this world, it really is,” he said later, when we were sitting down.
“When I retired I thought, that’s the end, I’m going to be sitting around doing nothing and just to have this opportunity as a last fling to do something so worthwhile — its an unbelievable gift.”
Campbell was born in Belfast in 1935. Living in a mainly Protestant area, he and his five younger siblings knew how difficult life could be as part of a minority group. One of Campbell’s earliest memories was fleeing to Dublin with his family after his father wrote a book criticizing the political treatment of Catholics in Stormont.
After his ordination in 1960, Campbell spent 32 years working as a parish priest in Andersonstown, where he established 10 youth centers. In his role, Campbell advised numerous young people who were emigrating to England and the U.S.. This led him to unexpected career change in 1992.
“I’d just opened a new youth information center in Belfast City Center and I’d heard that the Irish Catholic bishops had an emigration office in Dublin with a computer base of information and advice for people who were emigrating,” he said.
“I went down to get a copy for our center and they told me they were looking for a chaplain for New York. I’d been thinking about taking a break and I thought this would be ideal.”
Life was tough initially for the unknown Campbell, who tried to establish himself by handing out business cards in Irish bars around New York City. However, his masses in Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which featured Irish music and prayers, soon became a focal point for the immigrant Irish community. Before long, he was in constant demand to perform baptisms, marriages and house blessings.
“In Ireland, I hadn’t blessed houses in years, I think it just went out of fashion but here, big numbers of people here want their houses blessed,” he laughed.
“I can remember a couple of beautiful experiences where they used the speaker phone and the family at home were connected up. I remember one grandmother, praying for each of her grandchildren, and the one she hadn’t seen yet.”
Campbell’s name began to spread, as did his reputation for being a sympathetic counselor. Over time, demand for his services became so great that he had to employ a social worker to share the workload.
“It can be difficult, but the joy of being able to help someone even just to be there for them, is unbelievable,” he said.
In 1999, Campbell was appointed National director of the Irish US apostolate. He spent the remainder of his career traveling around the U.S., helping new and returning Irish immigrants and finding out what issues affected them. During this time, he conducted extensive research, interviewing Irish people and compiling statistics.
“I kept in contact with a lot of people who went back. One family asked to seem me the next time I was in Dublin,” he recalled.
“I contacted them, told them I was staying at the Skylon Hotel. She rang me two days later and said there were over 80 people who wanted to meet me. It was overwhelming. Actually 43 turned up but I interviewed them all about what it was like trying to settle back again. Basically they told me it was like emigrating again, even worse.”
Campbell submitted his findings to Department of Foreign affairs in Ireland in the hope they will use it to set up programs to deal specifically with the problems affecting returning emigrants.
“The Minister was very positive, he took it on board,” he said.
Amongst the highlights of his 45-year career, Campbell counts preaching at a funeral mass for John F Kennedy Junior. The service was broadcast all over the world and led to his being interviewed by Dan Rather.
“It was a massive experience, nerve wracking,” he said
“Then the following day then to be on for three hours with Dan Rather — that was unbelievable. Actually it could have been worse; I really didn’t know who Dan Rather was, I’d sort of seen him on TV but it was only afterwards I thought, “oh boy!”
For Campbell, however, seeing the New York Irish Center open has been his greatest achievement.
“I’m delighted that the media and people in general have seen it as such a positive thing,” he said.
“One of my fears was that all the begrudgers would be saying it was a waste of money. But the response has been extremely positive.”
In the meantime, the pace of life has slowed down considerably for Campbell, but he is anxious to remain active.
“I was told to exercise every other day I’m doing that. I go on the treadmill for 15 minutes and lift weights. I walk a lot. I’m very careful with my diet,” he said.
“But staying out of work; that would kill me. I don’t know how I would have survived retirement if I didn’t have this center.”