Camp Gray campers feel their way out of a rope maze designed to help them discover how to seek help from God. The camp, operated by the Diocese of Madison, not only gives youth an opportunity for summer fun, but also seeks to teach them about their spirituality and the Catholic faith. (Catholic Herald photo/Kat Wagner) For more photos of Camp Gray click here.
What is Camp Gray
Camp Gray, located on 225 acres in Lake Delton, is owned by the Catholic Diocese of Madison and funded by the support of patrons and donors.
It was founded in 1959 by Msgr. Francis Gray, at the time the pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Baraboo. It has grown considerably since that time and now serves thousands of campers and retreat-goers year-round.
Accredited by the American Camp Association, Camp Gray is co-ed and serves as an overnight camp during the summer months for campers in first through 12th grades and a retreat center used by parishes, schools, families, and individuals throughout the year.
Among the programs offered by Camp Gray are facilitated retreats on:
• environmental stewardship,
• team building,
• and spiritual growth.
Through the Voyageur Expeditions program in the spring and fall, families and other small groups can experience guided wilderness trips. Groups including family reunions, youth groups, school classes, ski groups, and more also stay at camp at times throughout the year.
In the summer, Camp Gray serves thousands of youth during the overnight summer camps. From settlers (grades 2-5) to explorers (grades 10-11); from ranch camp for horse-lovers (grades 7-11) to the off-camp Voyageurs trips (grades 8-9 and 10-12); and the three-week Leaders-in-Training course, there’s something for everyone.
For more information on Camp Gray, visit the Web site, www.campgray.com For general questions about Camp Gray retreats, rentals, or the summer camp program, call 800-711-4729 or 608-356-8200 or e-mail
REEDSBURG -- There are many things on Camp Gray’s “wish list”: crucifixes, picnic tables, scholarships for low-income campers, a vacuum cleaner.
But there’s one that tops the list: a full-time priest for summer camp.
It’s not as easy a wish to fulfill as, say, a new NAB Catholic Youth Bible. But it’s as important, if not more so — especially when it’s remembered that Camp Gray is the Catholic camp of the Diocese of Madison, one of the few in the country, and a training ground for youth to learn about their spirituality and the Catholic faith.
But for now they’ve got seminarians, others in serious contemplation of religious life, on-fire Catholic counselors — and, of course, God.
One might say that God’s everywhere at Camp Gray, where every year youth come from around the state and other parts of the country for summer programs and spiritual nourishment.
It’s especially easy to find God there at morning praise and prayer, where youth and counselors share in the task of teaching each other what it means to be Christian, singing songs of praise, and praying earnestly. In one skit this year, he even spoke in a voice coming from somewhere in the woods.
God’s there for grace before and after meals; he’s there at prayer in the cabins; he’s there at the exuberant and reverent Mass on Fridays; and he’s there in the
Blessed Sacrament, placed in the monstrance on the altar of the St. Francis of Assisi Chapel during Eucharistic Adoration.
The opportunity for Adoration has been a huge blessing this year. The monstrance was a gift from a donor, an item that had been placed on the wish list only a week before. In previous years, they had to borrow a monstrance from St. Cecilia Parish in Wisconsin Dells; now, they can give the campers and staff a more regular opportunity to worship and spend hours in contemplation.
The staff members, especially, are “jazzed” about it, said Jeff Hoeben, co-director of the camp. “I think, for staff members, their faith life is hard to maintain when they’re on the job 22 hours a day. They might not have as much time for daily prayer, daily Mass.”
“I know it’s the highlight of their week — every staff member shows up,” said Lindsay Becher, who works with the three-week Leaders-in-Training (LIT) program. At one meeting, they spent at least 10 minutes talking about “sweet Adoration experiences,” she said.
In her work as a director of youth and young adult ministry at St. Joseph Parish, Baraboo, Becher said she doesn’t often see youth exposed to Eucharistic Adoration. But the staff’s joy of the opportunity clearly spreads to their campers, as well.
“The kids are talking about it, too — you hear one say, ‘I only went for 65 minutes, but . . .’” Becher said with a laugh. “It’s cool that the staff members take advantage of (the opportunity for Adoration), and then they share it with the campers.”
So much of the Camp Gray experience depends on the counselors and staff. They teach with patience how to climb walls and shoot arrows during activity periods; they demonstrate new camp songs and urge their tables at meals to race for cleanup; they gamely respond to shouted petitions for song or dance with impressive acappela renditions of pop songs and waltzes around the salad bar.
From sunup to sundown, they are building the camp experience with an infectious joy and enthusiasm.
“But it’s critical that that joy is real,” said Sara Knutson, program director. “Kids can tell that joy is real.”
Knutson is one of the many return-counselors. The camp itself has about a 60 percent rate of return for campers — often for multiple years — and many of the counselors are familiar faces, as well. Some even come back for years afterwards to volunteer for a week or two.
Counselors come from around the country and hear about the camp from a variety of sources. Camp Gray is the first to pop up in a Google search of Catholic summer camps, for instance, and is listed in the Catholic Network of Volunteer Services directory.
Knutson had come from the Milwaukee area and heard about the camp while a senior in college as she was looking to do a year of service. Now she’s a year-round volunteer; this summer she was working with the Explorers, youth in grades 10 and 11 who camp in the “Explorer Village” on the west side of Camp Gray’s 225 acres.
“I love the ministry here — it’s so powerful; it has such an impact on the kids’ lives,” she said. “Working with the older kids, you can see how every year has built this foundation of their faith lives.”
Especially here, in the Explorer Village, where the campers and counselors form a tight bond as they cook their own meals and do their own dishes and create their own schedule for the week in a team-oriented atmosphere, it’s easy to see how the activities at camp are, as Knutson said, “a very powerful piece of their faith foundation.”
“At the same time, it can’t be the only place,” she added. “Daily Mass, daily prayer, Eucharistic Adoration is extremely important.”
Seminarians and vocations
Which is why the example of the counselors is so important.
Working with the LITs, many of whom have been to camp seven, eight, even 11 years, Becher says she’s seen how important camp can be as a guide to living a Christian life. She, herself, was a camper long before she was a counselor for this, her sixth year.
“There’s something about living in Christian community and learning to be Catholic,” Becher said. “Not often can they look around and see 50 young adults they want to be someday.”
And among those 50 young, vibrant Catholics are many who are looking to the Church for their vocation in life. Five of the counselors this year are seminarians — two from the Diocese of Madison — and several other counselors have mentioned they are in discernment for religious life.
Mitchell Bechtold, a seminarian from the Diocese of St. Cloud who has been working at the camp since he discovered it in 2007, said he rediscovered his call to the priesthood during his first summer.
“I think having as many seminarians as we have here is a testament to the new love in the Church, a new desire in our generation,” he said, mentioning the rise in seminarians at St. Cloud and other dioceses. “And it’s not an isolated thing. I’ve heard a lot of it is built with Eucharistic Adoration — which we have here.”
Building the culture
The presence of so many people in discernment — whether for religious or married life — can help foster more vocations.
“To see the ‘cool’ counselors — people they’re having fun with — talking about a vocation, they think, oh, it’s cool to have a vocation,” said Hoeben, who with his wife Rebecca as co-director and their daughter also add a strong witness for Catholic marriage. “And it’s all the Lord working. It’s not like we plant them here.”
As well, the presence can be subtle, a simple example of young men and women solidly rooted in their faith.
“Not everyone knows we’re seminarians,” said Joe Baker, who with fellow Diocese of Madison seminarian Chris Gernetzke were at Camp Gray for their summer assignment. “But it’s just the idea that we’re able to interact with them. For the young people, there’s that idea of, ‘Who are seminarians?’”
As the campers discover the answer to that question — at least for the seminarian counselors they meet at camp — they will also be developing the foundations of their faith through fun and faith-filled activities. So while that full-time priest will remain on the Camp Gray wish list for now, campers will continue to have a solid set of examples of young Catholics living out their faith and through them learn to become examples themselves.
And who knows -- maybe someday one of them will be that full-time summer Camp Gray priest.