From Marine to firefighter to rector, Msgr. Campbell reflects on service

Thu, Nov 9th 2017 10:00 am
Staff Reporter
Now retired and living at the Bishop Head Residence in Lackawanna, Msgr. James Campbell served as a Marine Corps Lieutenant. (Left photo by DAN CAPPELLAZZO/Staff Photographer)
Now retired and living at the Bishop Head Residence in Lackawanna, Msgr. James Campbell served as a Marine Corps Lieutenant. (Left photo by DAN CAPPELLAZZO/Staff Photographer)

Msgr. James Campbell is probably best known for his long run as the rector of St. Joseph Cathedral in downtown Buffalo. It might surprise some to know that, years before entering the priesthood, he had a promising career in the military, serving in the Marines during the Korean War.

Msgr. Campbell, now 87, had three major vocations in his life, all of which involved serving others and wearing a uniform, and which he discovered almost by chance.

While attending Buffalo State College, the threat of American troops heading into war was dangerously close to becoming a reality. With the draft alive, Msgr. Campbell did not want to interrupt his studies to serve his country. A meeting with a Marine recruiter informed him about an ROTC-like program that would allow him to complete his studies and serve in the Marines upon graduation.

"I signed up with the corps in something called the Platoon Leaders Class, and spent two summers training at Quantico (Marine Corps Base in Virginia)," Msgr. Campbell, now retired from active duty with the Marines and priesthood, said. "The last summer, Sunday, the day the North Koreans invaded South Korea, I was on active duty. We thought we would be put on a transport and sent out to Korea. We weren't. We were sent home."

As future officers still in training, they weren't needed in the current state of combat. After graduating from Buff State, Msgr. Campbell was commissioned and called up for further training.

In an interesting turn of events for a man who would someday become a priest, although he had no plans at the time, Msgr. Campbell's great task in the Marines was a rescue mission rather than combat after a 7.2 earthquake struck the Greek islands of Cephalonia and Zaente. Assigned to Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines, he and his fellow troops were sent to the Mediterranean as a reinforce brigade in April 1953, four months before the great quake.

"While we were there, and it was a six-month tour, there was an earthquake in the Greek Islands and we were sent there to do savior work, much like they're doing in Mexico City now," he said. "We off-loaded our heavy equipment, all our rations because the people had absolutely nothing. That's how we spent three or four days, doing rescue work in Zaente. That was the big thing."

Meanwhile, Dwight Eisenhower took over the presidency and signed a ceasefire with North Korea.

"All of us who had been called up were released from active duty. So, I spent two years on active duty because the war ended," Msgr. Campbell said, adding that 18 months of that time was spent training and "whatever."

He remained in the Marine Corps reserves until his ordination as a deacon in 1963.

Msgr. Campbell grew up in South Buffalo near Fire Chief William Britt, brother of Msgr. Edmund Britt, rector of St. Joseph Cathedral at the time. The chief had a chauffeur with a flashy ride that captured the fascination of the young boy.  

"I was only 5 or 6 years old. His driver used to pick him up from the house. He came down in this big red Ford coupe with a bell on the front. That impressed me. So, I was always in love with the fire department," he said. "I decided to take my GI Bill and do something with it, so I took the Fire Department examination for firefighter. Passed, was ninth on the list, so I had a job almost immediately."

The job was meant to pay his way through law school, but after a semester he decided he liked the fire hall more than school. So, he decided to make a career at the fire department.

A chance meeting set him on a new path.

Having car troubles, he took a bus to the station where he met his neighbor John Barrett.

"John said, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'I'm going into the firehouse. I got a job at Engine 18. I like it,' and he said, 'I always thought you would be a good priest.' Never, never, never had any inkling priesthood was going to be my call," Msgr. Campbell said. "All of a sudden, I started thinking about it and praying about it. The more I prayed about it, the firmer it became. So, I approached one of my parish priests, Msgr. Charles Schoy, and said, 'Were do I go?'"

Msgr. Schoy directed him to the Diocesan Preparatory Seminary. His love of the Fire Department remained through his priestly ministry as he served as chaplain for Engine 18 on Fillmore Avenue.

He gave up the chaplaincy after driving past a three-alarm blaze to attend a school meeting. Realizing he could not manage the roles of chaplain and principal of Bishop Turner High School, he stepped down from the crew of Engine 18.

During his 17 years at the cathedral, Msgr. Campbell would still rush to the window whenever Engine 2 or Hook & Ladder 1 would pass the corner of Swan and Franklin. "I had the bug," he said. "It's still there."

Now, sitting in his room surrounded by books at the Bishop Edward Head Residence, or the "Old Soldiers Home" as he calls it, Msgr. Campbell ponders the connection between his three careers. He attended public school. Around eighth grade, a seminarian from Olean would come up to his South Buffalo school to teach the public schoolers about religion.

"The last meeting we had with him, he said, 'If you guys want to be happy, find out what God wants you to do, and do it.' That was a thought I always had with all of the things I tried," Msgr. Campbell said. "I'm always amazed at the ways God deals with us. I was about 12 years old, and of course, it never came to pass until I decided at the hands of John Barrett that I needed to look a little bit further than I had been looking.

"I'm a very fortunate guy," he continued. "There are three organizations that I think impacted my life, in fact, I know they did. Marine Corps is number one. Fire Department is number two. Priesthood is number three. You felt like you were doing something. You were part of a great organization that was doing something. There were dedicated people all around you, especially when I got into the minor seminary and I saw the great faculty they had there. These were good, solid people."

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