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They followed a priest carrying the Most Blessed Sacrament into the wilderness.
By firelight, they encountered the Lord in Adoration and the Sacrament of Confession.
They were the participants in this year’s newly renamed Camp Tolton at Camp Jo’Ota in Clarence.
The experience, doled out in age-appropriate doses for children in pre-kindergarten through high school, melded 170 Catholic children’s faith with many of the outdoor activities they love.
The theme was “Courage.”
The campers came from parishes all over northern Missouri.
“Our goal was for them to love and feel closer to Jesus and remain on fire with the Catholic faith when they go home,” said Amanda Durbin, who has been the camp’s director since it began six years ago.
Along the way, the campers learned how a boy from Missouri went from being a slave to a priest to a candidate for sainthood.
Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry, postulator for the sainthood cause of Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, visited the campers July 25.
He told of Fr. Tolton’s difficult journey from plantation to Priesthood, in language they could understand.
“And they remembered it,” said Father Stephen Jones, one of the priests who offered Mass for the campers. “I was there the next day, and they were telling me about it.”
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight visited campers for lunch on July 28 and took questions from a curious and attentive audience.
“Words can’t describe what an amazing opportunity his visit was for these kids,” said Mrs. Durbin. “They absolutely loved it. And I think he loved it, too.”
Other visitors to the camp included Father Gregory Oligschlaeger, pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Monroe City and St. Stephen Parish in Indian Creek; Father William Peckman, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Macon, St. Mary Parish in Shelbina, St. Patrick Parish in Clarence and the Mission of Sacred Heart in Bevier; and Fr. Jones, diocesan director of stewardship.
Father Paul Clark, chaplain at Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City, moderator of youth and young adult ministry in the diocese and diocesan vocation director and director of seminarians, spent much of the week at the camp.
So did Deacon Larry Mitchell of Shelbina and Deacon Bruce Mobley of Macon.
Many adult and teenage volunteers helped round out the crew.
“We were unbelievably blessed,” said Mrs. Durbin.
The priests took turns offering Mass and taking questions from the campers.
Students from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, helped with the camp and talked about what it’s like to attend a Catholic college.
Pre-kindergartners and kindergartners spent a day at the camp; first- and second-graders spent two days and one night; and third- and fourth-graders, fifth- and sixth-graders, and seventh- through 12th-graders each stayed three days and two nights.
Four seminarians of the diocese visited with campers and talked about what led them to consider Priesthood.
The seminarians also led the procession while campers carried the canopy over the priest during the Eucharistic procession to the fireside in the woods.
There, the campers took part in Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
Talks and activities helped the campers focus on living and sharing their faith, in season and out.
“It’s about being Catholic all day, every day,” said Mrs. Durbin, “and what we can do to reflect that in a good way to everyone around us.”
“They wanted more”
Mrs. Durbin said the camp started six years ago. Members of the St. Mary Parish youth group in Shelbina were looking for something distinctly Catholic to do over the summer.
“We were already getting a huge turnout for our pre-K through 12 youth group,” Mrs. Durbin noted.
“They wanted more, especially during the summer,” she said. “We figured if we offered this, we’d at least be assured of having them come.”
After organizers contacted the youth ministers at neighboring parishes, the inaugural Catholic Church Camp at Camp Jo’Ota wound up drawing more than 100 participants.
The camp has grown steadily since then, with activities designed for each age group based on their level of formation.
This was the third year Fr. Clark spent time at the camp.
“That’s been a game-changer for us!” said Mrs. Durbin. “He is a reflection for the rural kids around here of how it’s completely doable to be a priest and remain in your diocese and still be able to enjoy the things that most of these kids enjoy doing.”
More than fun
Fr. Peckman said that in his 13 years of involvement in youth summer camps, he’s never witnessed anything quite like Camp Tolton.
“It was truly remarkable,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything that does such a good job of reaching down to all these ages and meeting kids where they’re at and bringing them up to where they need to be.”
The highlight of each year’s camp is the Eucharistic procession into the woods.
“That right there makes the whole camp worth it,” said Mrs. Durbin.
Many young people have been attending the camp since it began, some now old enough to serve as volunteer counselors.
“As fun as this camp is, they’re not coming back just to play every year,” Mrs. Durbin noted. “They’re coming back to be around these priests and seminarians and do things they don’t always get to do and see things they don’t always get to see.”
She said the Camp Tolton approach is the same as how her parish organizes its youth group: “Start with the very youngest.”
In that way, the young people become tight members of their parish family and want to do things together.
Fr. Peckman said Camp Tolton is living proof that evangelization is about much more than education.
“It’s about building up the relationship,” he said. “That’s what they do here.”
Plans are in the works to add one day to next year’s camp in order to accommodate as many as 200 campers.
“We just want to form stronger Catholics,” said Mrs. Durbin.