Eliza Randle knew what she was getting into when she signed up for Camp Siena this summer.
“It wasn’t just a camp with Jesus,” she said. “It was Jesus with a camp.”
Which is not say it wasn’t lots of fun.
“The facility was really nice and there were a lot of things to do,” she said. “We went to a slip ’n slide, horseback riding and on a float trip. I really liked the float trip.”
Eliza went to camp to meet Jesus, and she got to know Him better through her fellow campers and the adults who brought the camp into being.
She was one of 160 young people from 37 parishes who took part in Catholic camps sponsored by the Jefferson City diocese this summer.
Twenty-eight attended the weeklong Camp Maccabee for high school boys; 34 attended Camp Siena for high school girls; 50 attended Camp Lolek for junior high boys; and 48 attended Camp Lolek for junior high girls.
The theme for all of the camps was “Courageous Trust,” based on Matthew 14:22-33.
Camp Siena and Camp Maccabee are long-established, weeklong adventure camps designed to build leadership skills, a strong faith community and prayer opportunities for high school teens, in order to help equip them for their faith journey.
This year’s addition of the three-day Camp Lolek for middle school teens brought numerous opportunities for faith, fun and community.
The camp got its name from a childhood nickname of Pope St. John Paul II, who famously proclaimed, “God made us for joy!”
Camp Lolek provided a packed schedule, which started each day with a modified version of Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours.
Activities during the day included fishing, swimming, putt-putt golf, a waterslide, archery tag, metal stamping art, water fights and more.
The evenings provided bonfires, outdoor movies and a carnival with a DJ priest.
Daily Mass, Adoration and the Sacrament of Reconciliation were also provided.
One parent noted: “My daughter said the activities were one after another, so there was never any ‘boring’ time. This comment helped me understand that the camp was well planned and well organized.”
According to online surveys, 94 percent of young women who attended Camp Siena experienced a one-on-one encounter with God during the camp.
Sixty-seven percent of survey respondents from Camp Maccabee said they had encountered God there; and 73 percent of the boys and girls who attended Camp Lolek said they had such an encounter.
Mass and Adoration were the most mentioned as venues for these encounters.
Many of the young men who attended one of this year’s two Camp Maccabee sessions indicated community and fellowship as their favorite parts of the experience.
“I enjoyed meeting all these new people and growing together in Christ,” one of them stated in a survey.
“All the guys are so cool and really helped me to grow as a man,” said another.
Most stated that they want to return as campers or counselors next year, to spend time with the new friends they made.
Many parents said they noticed a difference when their sons and daughters came home.
“The most exciting thing we heard from our daughter was that she learned how to pray in silence,” a parent stated in a survey. “She grew in her faith and closeness to God.”
Another set of parents marveled at the message their son shared about how all men are called to be fathers.
He told them, “We have to listen to God’s call to what kind of father we should be.”
Longing for connection
Maureen Quinn, diocesan director of religious education and youth/young adult ministry, pointed out that people long to experience an authentic relationship with God.
“We have found that young people especially are most likely to experience that encounter within a community and in the context of one-on-one relationships with adults and their peers,” she said.
High school senior Allie Mathews called her fourth annual Camp Siena experience “phenomenal.”
She hopes to participate next year as a counselor.
“Just being able to spend time with girls my age who I know also have questions about their faith, and being there to get (those questions) answered in so many ways was very meaningful,” she said.
Sister Irenaeus and Sister Maria Fatima, Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Michigan, were at Camp Siena all week and enhanced the experience with their witness.
One day at this year’s camp, groups of eight spent a day floating on rafts down the Niangua River.
Allie noted that she and her fellow campers spent most of their down time in small groups, visiting with fellow campers and enjoying each other’s company.
Many of the friends she made are from small towns like the one she’s from, where opportunities to form Catholic community are somewhat limited.
“We found that connection and continued to be there to support each other,” she said.
Faith and friendship
This was Eliza’s first time at Camp Siena.
The days were filled with fun activities, but “I knew the main reason we were there was to become closer to God,” she said.
This was the first time she spent an entire hour in Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
“It was probably the greatest ‘Jesus thing’ I did at the camp,” she said. “I think everyone gained from that. It was very peaceful.”
There were many optional prayer opportunities throughout the week. Many of the young women opted-in to most or all of them, she said.
Each Camp Siena participant received a prayer journal. Eliza is putting hers to good use, writing down prayers so she can look back and remember how God answers them.
“That’s something that’s stayed with me after I got home,” she said. “I think I’ve really gained from it.”
Jacob White, a sixth-grader at St. Joseph School in Salisbury, was part of a capacity crowd at this year’s inaugural Camp Lolek for boys.
“I signed up because it sounded like a lot of fun,” he said. “I brought one of my friends with me.”
He made several additional friends and is looking forward to going back next year.
He said the most memorable parts were the float trip and the games.
“My favorite was probably archery tag,” he stated. “You have two teams and you try to shoot each other with arrows that have what look like marshmallow tips on them.”
He recalled that the campers also learned about saints.
Sixteen high school students — most from Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City and Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia — served as volunteer junior counselors for Camp Lolek.
“We witnessed their prayerful transformation throughout the week,” Mrs. Quinn stated.
Ten priests assisted at the camps to help provide sacraments and witness.
Six seminarians assisted at a majority of the camps.
Adults representing 20 parishes functioned in many roles.
“We’re just trying to serve our Lord and help our people!” said Danielle Freie, a member of St. Clement Parish in St. Clement.
Mrs. Freie served as a nurse and helped in the kitchen at Camp Siena, and with her husband Chad, helped out at Camp Lolek.
It’s something she’s been feeling called to for several years, so she jumped in when she got the chance.
She said the camps were a great time for the adult volunteers to bond over work, jokes and shared spirituality.
“Those are things you really look forward to,” she stated.
Mrs. Freie appreciated how Father William Peckman offered a late-evening Mass with the adults at Camp Lolek, because they were hard at work when the campers were at Mass.
She recalled the fun the young women had in Sister Irenaeus’s and Sister Maria Fatima’s company, especially on the float trip.
“I could see Christ very clearly in those moments,” she said.
That, she is convinced, makes it easier to recognize Him in other places.
“It makes you open your eyes more and not take anything for granted,” she said.
A third element
Fr. Peckman, who helped establish Camp Maccabee for young men 13 years ago, is convinced that these Catholic summer camps are successful because they include three important elements of drawing people to God.
“One is going to Mass and actively worshipping God,” he said. “Another is education — learning about the faith.”
Fr. Peckman refers to the third and often-missing component as “integration.”
“These camps give them this wonderful opportunity to take the things they learn in their parish, in their school and in their CCD/PSR programs, and bring them into an intentional community of likeminded individuals their age,” he said.
“They quickly see that that integration element is about a relationship with God but also about being part of the Body of Christ,” he added.
He noted that team building activities have been built into the Camp Maccabee experience from Day 1.
“You’re going to learn to look out for each other, look for each other’s strengths, help to overcome each other’s weaknesses — basically how to succeed as a corporal body, rather than seeking individual achievement,” he stated.
Fr. Peckman was amazed to see how Camp Lolek’s organizers had to rearrange the schedule on the night of Adoration, because so many of the boys still wanted to go to Confession.
“You could really see those connections clicking in their heads and them wanting to apply what they were learning to real life,” he said.
Much of the information in this article came from a report prepared by Mrs. Quinn.