by Jill Ragar Esfeld
WILLIAMSBURG — No one at Prairie Star Ranch here was surprised when the feast day of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha dawned sunny and mild.
The namesake of the many camp sessions that are held here at the ranch had blessed them with a perfect day for Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann to dedicate the new Sacred Heart shrine and garden.
Both were built to honor the memory of Antoinette Berkel, who died in 2006; a perpetual endowment scholarship in her name was established at the camp by her husband Charles.
The garden features red crape myrtles and knockout roses surrounding a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Berkels were longtime members of Sacred Heart Parish in Bonner Springs (now Shawnee), and Antoinette’s favorite color was red.
The garden was landscaped and planted by Prairie Star staff. Camp director Dana Nearmyer said he worked closely with Berkel to make sure the garden featured Antoinette’s favorite flowers.
“I wanted this to be something that would really bless his heart and the family’s heart for all of the generosity they’ve displayed to the archdiocese over the years,” he said.
But the garden’s beauty is far more than aesthetic. It stands as a symbol to the many children attending the camps of sacramental marriage and lifelong stewardship.
Antoinette left a legacy of devotion not only to her Catholic faith, but to her husband and family as well.
“We created the shrine and garden because we’re trying to find role models for these kids to follow,” Nearmyer explained. “Charlie’s and Antoinette’s love for each other was very obvious, and they were always giving to the community. We want to hold that example up to the kids.”
A busload of the Berkels’ family and friends accompanied Charlie and his two daughters to the dedication, where they were joined by 150 campers. The ceremony began with a song and a reading from the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. In his homily, the archbishop echoed Nearmyer’s sentiments, saying the Berkels were a couple who understood the call to married life and had a great sense of stewardship.
He expressed his hope that through the camp experience, the congregation would come to see themselves as God sees them and learn to be good stewards of his gifts.
“Take the gifts that God has entrusted to you and use them to glorify God,” he told the campers. “In everything, experience the love of Jesus Christ.”
Antoinette, said the archbishop, was a “great example to us of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.”
Being a disciple, he explained, means carrying the love of Jesus to others in our own lives.
“Toni tried to be that love in our world today,” he noted.
After the dedication, Prairie Star hosted a dinner for the guests and then the archbishop celebrated Mass for the campers and staff.
The Berkels’ youngest daughter, Danielle, was moved by the event and the recognition given to her parents.
“It was so perfect and just beautiful out there,” she said. “All their lives, Mom and Dad have been strong in their Catholic faith. They were blessed in this life to do well financially, and one thing I’ve always admired about them is they give back.”
Berkel described his wife as a versatile artist who wrote poems for him, played various instruments, sang in the church choir and enjoyed painting — especially portraits of her friends. Her greatest love, he said, was for children.
“When we got married, one of her first desires was to have children, and one of her biggest disappointments was when she couldn’t have any,” Berkel recalled.
The death of their first adopted child, a son, in a car accident was another crushing blow.
But the Berkels went on to adopt another son, who now lives with his own family in Miami, and two daughters, who attended the dedication.
Over the years, the couple established many scholarships to ensure children could receive a good education, something Berkel sees as the greatest gift he has to give.
“Probably that’s the one thing I have left to do in my life — help others get scholarships and education because I think that’s one of the most important things today,” he said. “I think education makes a difference — if you have one, you have an advantage.”
The Camp Tekakwitha endowment, on the other hand, promotes education of a different sort.
Nearmyer said the endowment will make it possible for many children to attend camp and experience Christ in nature who otherwise would have been unable to do so.
“We really try to work closely with families to get as many kids here as possible,” he said. “We hope it provides an opportunity for conversion experiences and education, but we want them to experience Christ in a really palpable way.”
“That was one of the finest things that’s happened to me for quite some time,” concluded Berkel at the end of the day. “I’m really proud of what they’ve done and, of course, I’m proud of my wife. If she could only be here, she would be thrilled.”
But Antoinette’s spirit will live on at Prairie Star Ranch, said Nearmyer. “We believe that Antoinette’s memory is going to live in the laughter of children for many, many years,” he said. “Isn’t that the legacy we all desire?”