Not even getting pulled into the tug-o-war pit could dampen the greatness of 2016 at Camp Gray!

By: Chris “Topher” Aderhold

The end of 2016 is nigh, but before we say goodbye to this remarkable year, a reflection of the past 12 months is in order.

However, as I attempt to reflect back on the year, my wandering mind instead keeps going forward, toward the 25th of December. Then again, as I look ahead to Christmas, my mind wanders back again – not to the past year, but instead back more than 2,000 years ago.

A virgin woman said yes, and a baby was born in a town called Bethlehem. The baby grew up, became a man, and went into the family business. And I don’t mean carpentry. 

He turned the water to wine, cured the sick, gathered the twelve, instituted the Eucharist, was crucified, died, and was buried. Except that He’s God, and not even death could hold Him down. Three days later, He rose from the dead, and then a few weeks after that, He ascended into heaven. Oh, and he started a Church.

His Church spread all throughout Europe, other than a pagan land in present day Poland. For nearly the first one thousand years after Christ walked the earth, this pagan land was devoid of the joy that can only be found in Jesus.

It was a far different story for the folks on the Island across the Celtic Sea. From the beginning, the faith took root in a land known as Ireland. From the start, the Irish were in the business of spreading the word about Christ.

Fast-forward many, many years, and finally, the year 966 marked the beginning of the end of the aforementioned pagan land, for the “Baptism of Poland” occurred. In 966, the pagan land became the Polish state, and the first ruler of this new state, Mieszko I, decided to be baptized. Much of his court followed, and then much of the citizenry.

The year 1966 brought celebration to the formerly pagan land of Poland, for it was the one thousand year anniversary of the Christianization of their country. However, the government of Poland at that time was communist – they’d been so since the Soviets had gained control at the end of World War II in 1945 – and they attempted to silence the celebration of the sacred millennial. Despite their efforts of silencing, the celebrations rolled on. However, twice during 1966, the government denied permission to Pope Paul VI to visit Poland.

Millions of faithful Irish saw Pope John Paul II in person when he visited Ireland in 1979.

Just 12 years after the sacred millennial, in the year 1978, Karol Wojtyla was elected pope, taking the name John Paul II. He was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years, and wouldn’t you know it, he was a Pole.

Pope John Paul II would reign as Pope for 27 years. During his time as pontiff, he became the most traveled pope in history, visiting 129 countries.

One of his very first visits, in 1979, was to return to his motherland. The communist government attempted to prevent his visit, but soon relented fearing major backlash. Over the course of his nine days in Poland, more than 13 million people saw the pope in person. His visit was the beginning of the end of Communist rule in Poland (and led to the eventual demise of the Soviet Union). Perhaps it was providential then, that his first Mass celebrated in Poland was in Victory Square in Warsaw.

Just three months later, in September of 1979, Pope John Paul II visited Ireland – becoming the first pope to do so. On his first day in Ireland, he celebrated Mass for nearly one and a half million people in Dublin. During his homily, he thanked the Irish for their evangelizing spirit. He told them, “When in 1966, we solemnly recalled the millennium of the ‘Baptism of Poland,’ we recalled with gratitude also those Irish missionaries who, among others, participated in the work of the first evangelization of the country.”

Where would Poland be today had it not been for the Irish (and other) missionaries? And who would Karol Wojtyla have become had he grown up in a pagan land? And what would our world be today without Pope John Paul II? 

On his second day, he celebrated a youth mass in Galway for 300,000 people at a horserace track. In attendance that day was a young Irish priest named Fr. Frank, a chaplain at a nearby school. Passionate about impacting the lives of youth, he’d brought many of his students to experience this once-in-a-lifetime event. The Pope told the young people at that Mass, “In Christ you will discover the true greatness of your own humanity; he will make you understand your own dignity as human beings ‘created in the image and likeness of God.’”

Fr. Frank was the nephew of a priest, also named Fr. Frank. Fr. Frank the uncle began seminary studies in Ireland in the 1910s. When the Irish war of independence from the British began a year or so later, Bishops across the Island began sending their seminarians to faraway lands to finish their studies. Fr. Frank the uncle was sent to the United States of America – a country that won their own independence from the British some 143 years prior. More specifically, he was sent to a seminary in Milwaukee, WI. He loved Wisconsin so much that after being ordained in 1923, he asked his Bishop if he could remain in America to minister to the fine people of south central Wisconsin. His Bishop graciously agreed.

Later on down the road, in 1947, Fr. Frank the uncle was assigned to St. Joseph Parish in Baraboo, WI. While in Baraboo, Fr. Frank the uncle (who was made a Monsignor) saw a need. He too had a passion for impacting the lives of youth, and he recognized that kids need a place to escape the busyness of everyday life. They need a safe place where they’re encouraged to be themselves, where they have loads of fun, where they make new friends, and where they can grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ. With the help of his friends in Baraboo, he purchased 100 wooded acres 8 miles northwest of Baraboo in 1953. He and his friends got to work building the new camp. Sadly, just four years later, Monsignor Frank died. He was laid to rest atop a tree-covered hill at the St. Joseph Cemetery in Baraboo. In his honor, Monsignor Frank’s friends gave the Camp his surname, and thenceforth his Camp has been named Gray.

For more than 60 years, Monsignor Frank’s Camp has impacted thousands!

Fr. Frank the nephew would later become an uncle himself. He now has two nephews, six nieces, and many great-nephews and nieces. One of his nephews is also named Frank. Frank didn’t become a priest, but he did go into the family business of impacting the lives of young people. Frank is a teacher in County Longford, Ireland. Frank visited Camp Gray and the final resting place of his great-uncle in 2011 and again in 2013. During his visit in 2013, Frank invited me to visit the Gray farm in Ireland. One year later, I took him up on his offer.

In the spring of 2014, I traveled to that Island on the edge of Europe. I went with two Camp friends, Bill Van Wagner and Fr. Joe Baker (though at the time, Father wasn’t yet a Father, so we just called him Joe.) We traveled to Ireland because, well, it’s Ireland. It’s green, and beautiful, and there’s fences made of stone, and there’s enormous cliffs, and beautiful churches, and there’s some of the friendliest and most joyful people you’ll ever meet. We also traveled to Ireland because we wanted to meet Fr. Frank the nephew and the rest of the Gray family, and we wanted to see the Gray farm – the ruins of the stone house that Monsignor Frank grew up in can be found on the far side of their property.

On our last morning with the Gray’s, Fr. Frank the nephew celebrated Mass for us in his home chapel. While feasting on a “full Irish breakfast” following Mass, Fr. Frank told us the story of when Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979. He told us of the joy he brought to the Island. He told us of a pagan land that would become Poland, and he told us it was Irish missionaries (among others) that helped to convert the people of the pagan land. He told us of the Pope’s gratitude for the Irish people for evangelizing his ancestors many, many years before.

From L to R, Bill, Topher, Fr. Frank, and Fr. Joe in County Longford, Ireland.

Then he turned the story to us. He told us that we were like Pope John Paul II. We’d traveled a long way on a pilgrimage to visit the place that was responsible, in large part, for who we’d become. Pope John Paul II thanked the people of Ireland for the work their ancestors did more than a thousand years before. We thanked the Gray family for the work their ancestor did only 60 or so years prior.

There’s no way of knowing what Poland would be today had it not been for the Irish missionaries of yesteryear. There’s no way of knowing who Karol Wojtyla would have become had he grown up in a pagan land. There’s no way of knowing what our world would be today without Pope John Paul II. And, without Monsignor Frank’s Camp, there’s no telling what the Diocese of Madison would be today. I know I’m not alone when I speak of the enormous impact Camp Gray has had on my life. Many thousands more – somewhere north of one hundred thousand more! – could also speak to the impact Camp Gray has had on their life. Where would you be today without Camp Gray?  

I should have warned you, when my mind wanders, it wanders! Except, words found on a shirt that was worn often by Paul Coakley read, “Not all who wander are lost.”

I promise I’m not lost, and mercifully, we’ve made it to 2016!

2016 was a remarkable year at Camp Gray. 4500 young people took part in a Camp Gray experience. Young adults from more than a dozen states joined us to serve on our Summer Camp Staff. They gave much of themselves, striving everyday to provide our campers with an experience of faith, friends, and fun. We were blessed with an outstanding Servant Leadership Team for the 2015-2016 school year, and our 2016-2017 Servant Leadership Team is just as wonderful, full of joyful, loving, faith-filled young adults.  2016 saw many joys, loads of goofy times, and countless moments of encountering Jesus Christ. (Also 2016 was full of amazement, deliciousness, patriotism, sheer awesomeness, ungulates, and family! All in all, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone that wouldn’t give it two-thumbs up!)

2016 also happened to be the 50- year anniversary of the ordination to the priesthood of Fr. Frank the nephew.

On the day of his ordination, more than 50 years ago, Fr. Frank with (from L to R) his brother Matthew, mother Rose, and sister Mary.

For 50 years, Fr. Frank has faithfully served the people of central Ireland. During his studies to become a priest, more than 50 years ago, he read about the life of St. Therese of Liseiux. He was influenced by her spirituality and her way of thinking. She wrote, “I am a very little soul who can offer to God only very little things.” For the entirety of his priesthood so far, he’s strived to live by that – by offering God little things. When every little soul is offering God very little things, from that – with the help of God – big things can happen.  

This past summer, to honor Fr. Frank during his Jubilee year, two of his nieces traveled from Ireland to experience the Camp that was started by a Gray many years before. Both of the nieces, Maura and Martha, are also in the family business of impacting the lives of young people, as both are also teachers. Neither one had been to Camp Gray, and they were overjoyed to visit during such a monumental year for their uncle Fr. Frank the nephew.  

At his jubilee Mass back in June, Fr. Frank shared that during his priesthood, there have been many ups and downs, but he’s always been confident of the Lord’s presence.

“I have felt like St. Peter with the Apostles in the boat on the Sea of Galilee. The Lord has given us so many days of sun and light winds, days when the catch was abundant. There were also moments when the waters were rough and the winds against us, as throughout the Church’s history, and the Lord seemed to be sleeping. But I have always known that the Lord is in that boat, and I have always known that the boat of the Church is not mine, not yours, but His. Nor does the Lord let it sink; it is he who guides it.”

There were lots of smiles in 2016 at Camp Gray! Thanks for your support!

In many ways, the year 2016 at Camp Gray echoes this sentiment. There were certainly many joys and loads of goofy times. Sometimes, yes, things can become challenging. Sometimes it might seem like the Lord is sleeping. However, throughout the past year, and throughout Camp’s history, we know that it is the Lord that guides us at Camp Gray. He won’t let us sink – he that was born of a virgin more than 2,000 years ago; He that unites each of us into this amazing story of salvation.

To all those that supported Camp Gray over the past year, we are abundantly grateful. We know that we wouldn’t be where we are today without your support. Big things are happening at Camp Gray, and the year 2017 might be just be the biggest year, yet. Thank you for your continued support.

Lastly, congratulations to Fr. Frank the nephew on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. Thanks for your friendship, for your prayers, and for your example of putting your trust in the Lord. 

From all of us at Camp Gray, we wish you a very Merry Christmas!

God bless you all.