archive ISSUE

Early staffers remember camp ondessonk's beginnings

Story and photos by LIZ QUIRIN
Messenger editor

Thousands of young people have journeyed to Camp Ondessonk over the last 50 years, making new friends, drawing closer to old ones and sharing experiences and adventures they never imagined possible.

Camp Ondessonk is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, marking many milestones and remembering campers, staff and volunteers who made each and every season memorable.

Special events have been planned to mark the anniversary: April 18 an anniversary gala is planned, beginning at 6:15 p.m. at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville.

A silent and verbal auction to benefit camp will follow the dinner.
On June 6, the camp will be open to the public the day before the 2009 camping season begins.
From 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. that day you can be a camper again, hiking in the forests, visit the units that now house campers, celebrate Eucharist in the Grotto and share stories with other “senior” campers.
In the fall an anniversary golf benefit will be held at 8 a.m. Sept. 19 at Roland Barkau Memorial Golf Course in Okawville.

If you’ve been to camp you will remember the trading post, maybe the old dining hall, the evening assemblies when you dressed in your camp shirt, camp-outs with foil burgers, many activities, including horse-back riding, swimming, archery, crafts’ classes and more.

A group of some of the very first staff members gathered recently to talk about the early days of camp.
It began with Camp St. Phillip, the brain child of Msgr. John T. Fournie, parish pastor at St. Philip’s in East St. Louis in the mid- to late 1950s.

Soon other East St. Louis parishes were included in the camping experiences. At that time, young people went to Camp Piasa in Grafton and Camp Vandeventer in Waterloo.

“Camp St. Philip developed a camping honor society open to second-year campers recommended by their unit leaders. The initiated girls became Faithful Maidens of the Loyal Lodge of Tekakwitha, ‘named in honor of Kateri Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks,’ and the initiated boys became Loyal Members of the Lodge of Ondessonk, ‘named in honor of St. Isaac Jogues.’

“The living quarters for campers were divided into five units, all bearing the names of missionaries and their followers in French Canada — Marquette, LaSalle, LaLande, Brebeuf, and Hennepin,” according to information from a book detailing the history of the camp.

The diocese wanted a permanent location for the camp, and land was eventually acquired in the Shawnee National Forest where the camp remains today.

Opening date was set for June 28, 1959. According to early staff members, they were putting some “finishing touches” on units as the campers rolled into the main area.
Eddie Barbier remembers some of the “issues” that came up, not as problems but challenges the young staff members could solve.

“We had the freedom and the responsibility” to get things done, and “we learned to solve problems and grow,” Barbier said.

Another early staff member, Gerry Montroy, remembers “Msgr. Fournie was completely kid driven,” wanting all of the young people to experience the joys and growth opportunities of camping.

During that first season, Montroy said, “we started working four weeks before camp opened. It was rustic,” he said.
Barbier said “primitive” might be a better word.

“Bishop Albert R. Zuroweste was made general supervisor of Camp Ondessonk, and Msgr. Fournie was named general director. Similar to his role at Camp St. Philip, Robert Vonnahmen took the role of chaplain and camp moderator for the first summer.

“Ruth Halterman, the original registrar and office manager, began as a volunteer but became camp’s full-time office manager. Camp’s office was located in her home on Church Lane, in East St. Louis. She served in this position until 1986.

“Program director during the first summer, Father Leo Hayes, remembers that, ‘When we got there that first week in June, none of the units were complete. Ondessonk wasn’t built yet.’

“As opening day came, the volunteer crews scrambled to finish in time, still building bunks in the cabin as children and parents arrived.

“During its inaugural summer, Camp Ondessonk served 481 campers with 52 staff during four weeks. In the absence of a camp gate, the first campers to Camp Ondessonk came by means of a rock road that was a remnant of a railroad bed and a path that led to a clearing and the freshly-built dining hall.

“Once they arrived, they were placed in one of the four original units: Brebeuf, Chabanel, Goupil, and LaLande. The units were constructed in a rustic style of uncured oak. As the spring turned to summer, the wood shrank, leaving large gaps in between the planks.

“A camper in 1959 and later a staff member and volunteer, Jim Shively remembers his grandmother’s anxiety to leave him for fear that snakes would enter his Chabanel cabin through the gaping spaces between planks.

“In the absence of a chapel during the first summer, Mass was said under a rock overhanging below the dining hall. The ‘Grotto,’ as it would later be known, would continue to serve as a favorite site for the celebration of Mass over the next 50 years,” according to information from the book on camp.

The present camp director, Dan King, was a camper in the early through mid-1980, then a counselor in training in 1986, and finally a camp counselor from 1987-1994.

For some people, summers meant Ondessonk, and camp became a way of life. Young men and women sometimes met a future spouse at camp.

When folks outgrew the age to go to Ondessonk as campers, they often became life-long volunteers.
“The concept of time and talent” volunteered “at camp is huge,” Connie Lanaghan, development director, said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

That spirit brings adults back to camp every spring to work at camp, making improvements and replacing or fixing things that would otherwise be very costly for the camp to repair.

During the earliest days of the camp, staff members doubled as carpenters, plumbers and electricians to make sure campers were adequately lodged.

An application form in a 1961 Messenger detailed a typical day at camp and included a registration form for the upcoming season. Cost was $18.00 which included a $5.00 registration fee.

The typical day included reveille at 6:55 a.m., Mass at 7:25 a.m. and breakfast at 8 a.m.
Time was included to clean up and make your bed before heading off for any of a number of activities.
Evening activities were planned for every night, with one night set aside for a Lodge ceremony, complete with Native American costumes and dance.

Youngsters were called out from each of the units to be initiated into the lodges. At first, these young people were nominated by their fellow campers, and with staff approval, their names would be called.

In keeping with the volunteer spirit of the camp, some campers chose to complete service work to become members of the lodges. They received specific directions and materials from camp personnel if they chose to complete the project.

Meals were provided at the camp, and during the first years, volunteer cooks came from the ranks of the Belleville Diocesan Council of Catholic Women, according to notes on the camp.

In the late 1960s those “experienced” cooks were assisted by staff members assigned to the kitchen staff. Campers drank Kool Aid made in 10-gallon garbage cans used only for that purpose.

According to records, by 1964, camp boasted additional units and 72 buildings in all although while all of the buildings were said to be in use some were “yet to be completed.”

When camp opened, literature said 2,500 campers could be accommodated. By 1965, enrollment reached 4,380 campers per summer with a staff of more than 120 people.

For swimming, campers originally used a part of Ozark Creek known as “Blue Pool” because of the color swimmers turned from the cold waters.

Later, the present lake was added, and Blue Pool is no longer used. Construction of Lake Echon began in January 1968 with donations and volunteer assistance of construction companies and workers which included 11 firms and many volunteers, according to book information.

Other additions were made throughout the years, and by 1975, enrollment was listed at 7,321 campers per summer, which included Frontier campers — high school-aged youth who left the camp on various types of trips. Frontier trips lasted for more than 10 years, taking campers to various locations within and outside the United States.
During the 1970s, camp boasted some international staffers from Europe and Africa, although today cost and paper work for international staffers make it difficult to continue the practice.

The Friday marathon was introduced by program director, Dan Hechenberger in 1975 and was a mainstay for many years.

In 1976, it was evident repairs and renovations were needed. Again, volunteers shouldered some of the work. Under the direction of Jim Kathmann, a new swinging bridge was built between Brebeuf and a unit called Amantacha.
Most of the units were rebuilt between the 1970s and 1980s. New tree-house units were added, and other structural improvements were made.

During the 1990s specialty camps were added with horsemanship, adventure, trekking and aquatics the headlining specialty camps.

Also, in 1993, year-round camping experiences were introduced so that people could see what nature had to offer all year long.

In 1996, camp earned accreditation from the American Camping Association for the summer of 1997. Many people contributed countless hours to achieve the accreditation.

Repairs and up-dating of aging facilities was continued as needed. Again, volunteers came forward to do as much work as possible.

While noting the upkeep of the camp is important, more poignant are the memories that are made through the years.
Laura Edgar Whelan of Columbia has boundless enthusiasm for camp. Here are her memories:
“It is Heepwah!, the Covered Bridge, Tommy the bear, the Lodge, a week long trip away from mom and dad for the first time and a million other great memories.

“My greatest memories of Camp aren’t really when I went, but when my kids went to camp. We moved away for a period of time and I lamented the fact that there was not a camp quite like Camp O where we lived.
“Where else can you ride horses, learn archery, hike in sweltering July heat, swim in the lake that you boat, sail and fish in and shoot guns?!

“I wanted my kids to get that experience too, but we were too far away. Then came the glorious year we moved back to the area!

“One of my dreams for my kids was going to come true -- Camp Ondessonk was within driving distance and they would get to partake in the wonders of this special place in the Shawnee National Forest.

“They would get to eat foil burgers, hear the stories about the swinging bridge and how it would sway. They would get to canter on horses on the last ride of the afternoon as they headed back to the stables.

“My kids would see the Grotto and feel the sounds resonate off the stone walls as each unit sang/shouted their unit cheers.

“They learned about outhouses, and flushing toilets were a privilege When I told them they would get to have the flag ceremony on the parking lot with inspection, they could not understand until they went through it and were thrilled when it happened.

“And the Snog -- who wanted to get that thing at dinner time!! My son actually loved the food; he wanted to be the hopper every night so he could have double portions!!

“When we sent in the forms, and received the confirmation envelope it was just a matter of time -- Camp was coming up.  As we drove down he highway/back roads of southern Illinois, I could not wait to see the gates welcoming me back to camp.

“Parking on the road to wait for the gate to actually open — who gets there that early to be the first in line? We did; my son swears the air smells better there — it is camp!!  

“And it was just like I remembered it: brown stained logs, hewed with the symbol of the camp and the name notched into the planks. 

“Yes, Camp O has a unique smell — some parents think it is all the old socks and sweaty bodies — but some of us think it is the smell of  a great week spent at Camp. My oldest loved camp so much she worked there — much to the envy of her brother. My third child has been to camp every year she has been able to go and is considering working at camp too. My 7-year-old asks every year if this is finally the year she can go to camp.

“Camp Ondessonk is happy memories. It is the 10 units with North American martyrs’ names; it is rain on overnights; it is horses, the Trading Post, the Covered Bridge, the campfire stories, Lodge. It is nature and God! Here’s to 50 years of great times and hoping for 50 more!”

May Stellhorn of Red Bud sent us a taste of what others have seen, heard and shared through the years.
“My memories of Camp Ondessonk are those of a mother watching her children go to camp. There was only one ‘camp’ — Ondessonk.

“I helped them pack, drove them to camp and unpacked loads of musty-smelling clothes. I listened to the ghost stories and learned the meaning of Ondessonk and the story of St. Isaac Jogues and the North American martyrs. I rejoiced with them when they were noted into the Lodge of Ondessonk.

“All five of my children attended as campers. One of them was a C.I.T. (counselor in training), and two of them were counselors and unit leaders. All of them spoke of the beauty and mystery of nature there. They made good friends and happy memories.

“My grandchildren continued the tradition. The only ones missing out are the grandchildren in Washington state.
“After 37 years of driving kids to Ondessonk, I finally found the time to go. On my oldest daughter’s birthday, we drove to Ondessonk for the mother-daughter weekend. I’m sure we were the oldest mother and daughter there. Nevertheless, the weekend was great. The beauty of Ondessonk got to me. When I came home, I missed it. It is a very special experience.”

Copies of the book written on the history of Camp Ondessonk will be available at the April 18 anniversary gala. After the gala, the books will be available through the Trading Post at camp. Cost is $49.95 per copy. For more information please see the camp web site at

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