WILLIAMSBURG — For most people, a summer job is just that — a job for the summer
For staff at Camp Tekakwitha, however, it’s more than just a summer job. It’s a way of life.
by Kara Hansen
More than 15 men and women who served as Camp Tekakwitha staff since its inception 10 years ago have entered the seminary or religious life. More than 30 have gone on to a career in lay ministry or faith formation.
Even though most staff members are working at the camp because they already love and want to share the Catholic faith, their experience at camp is often a pivotal point in their own faith journey.
“The greatest help I received at camp was just the experience of abandoning self to God’s will,” explained Father Anthony Ouellette, associate pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kan.
“You end up doing a lot of things you have not done before, and never really thought you would do — from leading a group of kids daily, to being called forward to speak in front of everyone and express your faith.”
“It really gave me the chance to see God was going to be there to help in whatever I was doing, no matter how exhausted or tired I was,” he added.
Father Ouellette’s years as a camp counselor date back to its earliest days, when Camp Tekakwitha was held at the Kansas State Grange at Perry Lake. Camp Tekakwitha acquired its permanent home at Prairie Star Ranch in Williamsburg in 2001.
When Father Ouellette started out at the camp, he was not yet a seminarian — though he was considering it at the time.
“Being with other staff and seeing their dedication to God really draws you closer together. Being able to live in community with others who have a single-minded purpose — following Christ — was very affirming,” said Father Ouellette.
For the first two years, he worked both as a counselor and as the music director.
After completing his second summer at Camp Tekakwitha, he applied for the seminary, then came back for two more summers as a seminarian. This time, his responsibilities ranged from work crew to helping with prayer and planning liturgies.
The work, recalls Father Ouellette, was both engaging and meaningful. But even more important was the sharing of the work — and the friendships fostered by that.
“Everyone there was very supportive. The support, prayers, and friendship I have to this day from many of the people I worked with is worth so much,” he said.
Precisely because it can be such a powerful experience for young men in formation, archdiocesan seminarians are often assigned to the camp for a summer.
“Being camp staff during the summer is rewarding and beneficial in the long range of preparation for becoming a priest,” explained Msgr. Michael Mullen, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kan., and archdiocesan director of seminarians.
“There’s the experience of working with youth as well as working shoulder to shoulder with other staff who give up their whole summer to work there,” he said. “That’s very inspiring.”
“Working at Camp Tekakwitha,” he added, “also provides the opportunity to expand a seminarian’s vision and experience, as they meet and work with people from all over the archdiocese.”
Newly ordained priest Father Greg Hammes, associate pastor at Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood, was assigned to work at Camp Tekakwitha in his second year as a seminarian. Father Hammes split time between serving on the work crew and leading a small group as a counselor.
Like most staff members, Father Hammes found his experience rewarding, if intense.
“It was a challenging environment,” he said. “You’re always with the kids — watching out for them, caring for them — so every moment there is a chance to minister.”
“You really learn to lead, because you’re with these kids 24 hours a day. You wake them up in the morning, eat with them, make sure they get sunscreen, talk about the faith with them. You have to lead and keep the boys focused on whatever activity we’re doing.”
As a seminarian, Father Hammes was already well down the road to the priesthood. He found his experiences at Camp Tekakwitha, however, helped affirm and further develop his vocation .
“One evening at T-Extreme Camp, a lot of the campers and staff were sitting around the campfire sharing stories of hard times and experiences of God working in their lives. Hearing their stories was very moving and made me want to really give my life in service for them,” said Father Hammes.
“It really confirmed to me that this is what I should be doing,” he added.
Father Hammes said his experience was largely unique compared to assignments seminarians from other dioceses were given.
“Having our seminarians work at Camp Tekakwitha is a benefit first of all to them, but it also benefits the camp and our archdiocese as well. Campers and staff get to see and be around someone who is following their vocation,” said Msgr. Mullen.
The camp itself takes a direct role in encouraging and fostering vocations. During his years as archdiocesan vocations director, Father Brian Schieber attended each camp session to celebrate Mass and lead a vocation awareness segment. The new vocations director, Father Mitchel Zimmerman, plans to follow suit.
Additionally — and most importantly — Scripture, prayer and the sacraments are an integral part of the Tekakwitha experience.
“At minimum, we have reconciliation and Mass twice during each camp session. We want to highlight the importance of sacramental life. It’s our lifeblood as Catholics,” said Dana Nearmyer, coordinator of evangelization and Catholic formation in the archdiocese.
Though prayer is woven into each of the activities at Camp Tekakwitha, set times for community prayer are key, and often leave a deep impression on staff and campers. Various methods of prayer used range from Taize to adoration to the rosary.
Cooking up a vocation
“The prayer experiences were very inspiring and faith-filled,” recalled another staff member who credits her vocation to her camp experience. “It really confirmed my desire to be of service to others and live out my faith.”
Barbara Berg — now known as Sister Barbara Berg — was the first employee in the history of Camp Tekakwitha. When the camp started up, Berg was working as a director of religious education at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Parish in Valley Falls, where she received a letter asking area youth ministers and religious educators for help.
She immediately contacted Nearmyer.
“The whole idea behind Camp Tekakwitha appealed to me,” said Sister Barbara. “Youth need a place to explore their Catholic faith along with activities. As a DRE at a parish, I knew our kids needed beyond what we could offer.”
The first two years of Camp Tekakwitha’s existence she worked as a small group counselor. As the camp grew, however, the need for the staff to take on food preparation became clear. With a background in food services, Berg was a natural fit for the position and directed the kitchen for the following two years.
The position kept her busy in the kitchen, but still allowed her to participate in daily prayer and evening activities with the rest of camp.
“Seeing the faith of the young adults working at camp, and the faith growing and developing in campers, was just awesome and very inspiring,” she said. “It really confirmed my desire to do some ministry and work more directly with God’s people.”
She had considered religious life in the past, during high school and college, but at the time felt it was not where God was leading her.
Years later, however, in 1981, Berg began volunteering as a catechist in religious education, and later worked as her parish’s DRE. She began to think hard about what God wanted her to do with the second half of her life.
“I started taking classes through the Institute of Religious Studies so I could have my understanding and knowledge of the faith renewed and reformed,” said Sister Barbara. “Through that, I had this feeling that God was preparing me for something.”
Shortly before the summer of 2001 — her last one at Camp Tekakwitha — she went on retreat and stayed with some Sisters in Texas she had known previously while growing up there. Through thought, prayer, and conversations with members of the community, she gradually discerned that religious life was where she was supposed to be.
Sister Barbara took her first vows in 2005 with the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate in San Antonio.
“Becoming a religious has been a real blessing for me,” said Sister Barbara.
“I know my experience at camp played a huge role in my desire to be of service and follow God,” she added. “No matter what vocation a person follows, those involved in Camp Tekakwitha hope that it leads to a path of holiness and love for Christ.”
Recently, Father Ouellette witnessed the mission of Camp Tekakwitha being realized before his very eyes. A group of young adults serving in Totus Tuus — a group of college students who devote their summer to teaching the faith at various parishes — was visiting St. Patrick.
In talking with the group, one of them reminded Father Ouellette that they’d already met — at camp! He was so moved, said Father Ouellette, to see the Camp Tekakwitha experience come full circle — from a kid attending camp and being formed and filled with the faith, to going out to share the good news himself.
“To me, that’s what the hope and desire of Camp Tekakwitha is all about — that we’re able to see the fruit of an encounter with Jesus,” he concluded.