by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — When incoming freshman Anna Zacharias arrives at Benedictine College in Atchison this fall, she’ll bring something that can fill almost 300 acres and possibly more.
That “something” will be her memories of Camp Tekakwitha at Prairie Star Ranch, the archdiocesan youth camp in Williamsburg.
“I started going to camp when I was in the fifth grade, in 2014,” said Zacharias, a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Leawood. “I was a camper there for eight years and this year, the ninth, as a counselor.”
Going to camp has been such a great experience that her three younger sisters followed her, and then her whole family attended Family Camp.
“For me, camp is a space to truly be myself and talk about the faith,” she said, “and questions I have about spiritual things of our walk and journey with people who are willing to listen intentionally and are asking the same questions.
“It’s a down-to-earth and authentic place where I can let my guard down. It’s an honest, genuine community. And it’s really cool to be in an environment where you can experience God in people around you and nature without the distractions of the world.”
This summer, Camp Tekakwitha celebrated its 25th anniversary. It’s one of the crown jewels of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, and it’s making memories and building a legacy of faith across generations.
Home on the Grange
Msgr. Thomas Tank had only been ordained three years when, in the late 1960s, he had an idea about starting a camp for the youth of the archdiocese.
“Camp Tekakwitha was really a thought that came to me because of the other Christian camps, like Kanakuk and other camps,” he said. “A lot of our Catholic kids were going to those. My concern was that we, as a church, were not taking care of our own kids as we should, and it would be good to have some sort of camping experience for them that would be fun, enjoyable, community-building and faith-based in terms of helping them experience Christ in the church . . . and claim their identity fully as Catholics.”
Nothing happened for years, but that didn’t mean the idea was dead.
“In 1986, when Msgr. Tank had just started the Church of the Nativity Parish, I was in high school,” said Deborah Nearmyer. “I went to a Christian (Protestant) summer camp. And when I got back, he asked me to tell him about my experience. He listened to a 16-year-old in his parish who had a really amazing experience of the Holy Spirit at camp and was having some doubts and questions about the Catholic faith.”
Nearmyer eventually became director of youth ministry and confirmation preparation at Nativity. Her husband Dana Nearmyer, a convert to the Catholic faith, was an English teacher and soccer coach at Olathe North High School.
Msgr. Tank then sold Archbishop James P. Keleher on the idea of a Catholic camp and recruited the Nearmyers to be the co-founding directors.
They got to work drawing up the first camp curriculum of teaching, activities and prayer. They recruited and trained staff. Since they had no actual camp, they utilized Perry House, a property owned by the archdiocese at Lake Perry, and the Kansas State Grange Center, both located northeast of Topeka. The first Camp Tekakwitha was held in June 1998 with about 30 high school-aged campers and about eight staff.
Joe Passantino Jr. was camp assistant director. Among the other early personnel were Barbara Berg, former director of religious education at St. Dominic Parish in Holton and St. Francis Xavier in Mayetta; Katie June Creal, counselor; and Shawn Madden, who became Prairie Star Ranch director until 2010; Lyn McMahon, who was a youth minister at Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park; Father Anthony Ouellette before he was even a seminarian; and Kathy White, a youth minister from Topeka. Naming the camp after St. Kateri Tekakwitha was a suggestion of former archdiocesan youth ministry director Larry Livingston.
Go big and go to camp
Msgr. Tank knew that Camp Tekakwitha needed its own, permanent, residential camp property. Joe Falco, a parishioner involved in Scouting, knew of a nearly 300-acre defunct dude ranch in need of refurbishing for sale in Williamsburg.
“The support of Archbishop Keleher was essential for us to begin the project,” said Msgr. Tank, who was an archdiocesan vicar general at the time. “I took Archbishop Keleher and [vicar general] Msgr. Charles McGlinn down there after I first saw the land. Msgr. McGlinn wasn’t very optimistic about it. He thought it was going to be a money pit. But Archbishop Keleher, because it was for our young people, was very supportive.”
Msgr. Tank bought the ranch in August 1999 for the archdiocese.
The property, which was named Prairie Star Ranch, needed a lot of work and some new construction for dormitories, staff and director housing, and program areas — such as a climbing tower and high ropes course. Archdiocesan consultant for real estate and construction Leon Roberts played a key role in developing and refurbishing the ranch infrastructure. And, of course, a lot of parishioners donated money and volunteer hours.
The program has continued to grow since the first sessions at Prairie Star Ranch in June and July 2000.
Each year during June and July, the camp hosts approximately 1,700 campers in 11 sessions: Camp Kateri for fifth and sixth grades; Camp Tekakwitha for junior high and high school; Max camp and Xtreme camp for high school; and three sessions of Family Camp — one being for campers with special needs and new this year, Spanish-language Family Camp.
Something worth celebrating
Deacon Dana and Deborah Nearmyer are still co-directors of the camp. She is now director of faith formation at St. James Academy in Lenexa, and he is director of the archdiocesan office of evangelization.
“I became the youth director for the archdiocese and we started using [Camp Tekakwitha] as a laboratory to try different kinds of Bible studies, different methodologies and pedagogy, reading everything we possibly could about what was igniting the Catholic world in different places, and what was the secret sauce at the Steubenville conferences,” said Deacon Nearmyer.
“FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) started the same year . . . as Camp Tekakwitha,” he added. “We were minding the things Curtis Martin was talking about and throwing the spaghetti on the wall and see what was sticking and take it back to our youth.”
And it worked. The camps became a place where youth could have experiences of conversion and encounter with Jesus Christ.
Kyli Maddox, a member of St. Agnes Parish in Roeland Park, is one of the many who were changed by their camp experience.
“My life and camp have pretty much been interwoven since 1998, when I was a camper at the Grange,” said Maddox, now a campus minister at St. James Academy. “I could have never even begun to imagine the extraordinary impact that experience would have on my life.
“Camp means everything to me. . . . It’s a sacred space where my heart is most at home and my soul is delighted in the freedom found. It’s the house that built me, a place where so many of my favorite memories were created — the hard ones, the challenging ones, the valued ones, the essential ones, the cherished ones.”
Camp, she said, will never cease to be a part of her life because she carries in her heart the life-changing lessons she learned there and is still using them 25 years later.
On July 30, the traditional closing ceremony for the camp was held, the Echo of Kateri Picnic, where the Echo of Kateri Award was given to two couples and one priest for their service to the camp and youth ministry. The 25th anniversary was celebrated, as was the campaign of Eucharistic Revival the archdiocese is now undergoing.
Msgr. Tank looks upon the conclusion of another successful camping season, and the 25th anniversary, with a sense of satisfaction.
“What’s happened at Camp Tekakwitha and Prairie Star Ranch far exceeds my expectations,” said Msgr. Tank. “It’s because of the people who took the leadership and went with it — that was the crucial thing. Yes, it gives me a sense of satisfaction that I was an initiator of that, but I’m particularly appreciative of all the people who carried it on.”
Leave a Comment