More than fifty years ago, a Capuchin priest gave his cousin, Nancy, a relic of St. Francis of Assisi.
The saint, known for his love of nature, died nearly 800 years ago. As you can imagine, relics of St. Francis are rare. In fact, his tomb, which is visited by some six million people each year, has been encased in concrete, preventing relic poachers from disturbing his final resting place.
Today, Nancy is 76 years old. For the majority of her long life, she’s held close to that relic. Through the ups and downs of life, seeking the intercession of St. Francis has guided her in her relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church.
In the last couple of years, Nancy became worried about what would happen to the relic if she passed away without first finding the relic a new home. For more than a year, she has been praying that the Lord guide her in gifting the relic to another.
Pope John Paul II is quoted as saying, “In the designs of Providence, there are no mere coincidences.”
More than a year ago, when plans commenced to expand the St. Francis of Assisi Chapel at Camp Gray, efforts to obtain a relic of the Chapel’s patron began in earnest.
The thing is, it’s not easy to find relics of a popular saint that died nearly 800 years ago.
Fr. Luke Powers, Camp’s Chaplain, and the associate pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Baraboo, reached out to Bishop Hying, who was happy to pen a letter to Assisi in search of a relic. The Franciscans that oversee St. Francis’ tomb could only offer the suggestion that the Bishop reach out to Rome, and so he did. Bishop Hying sent a letter to the Vatican seeking a relic of St. Francis of Assisi.
They didn’t respond.
Several years ago, Camp Gray reached out to Pope Francis and invited him to come to Camp to compete in the Cassidy Games. The Vatican didn’t respond then, either.
Maybe we have the wrong P.O. Box number?
The hope was to obtain a relic prior to the dedication of the expanded and improved Chapel at Camp Gray. The day came and went this fall, and sadly, no St. Francis of Assisi relic could be found. Despite that, it was a beautiful dedication. Bishop Hying celebrated the mass, and the Chapel, doubled in size, was full. There have been many improvements to Camp Gray in the past several years, but none have been as meaningful or important as the expansion of the Chapel. It is truly by the grace of God that the mission of bringing people to Christ remains vibrant and at the heart of all that is done at Camp Gray.
As is tradition in the Catholic Church, when a new church is dedicated, the relics of saints, specifically martyrs, are placed within the altar. Through the first four centuries after Christ’s Passion, Christians were violently persecuted for their faith. The early followers of Christ would celebrate mass atop the stone tombs of the martyrs, and so this tradition was born. While not a martyr, a relic of St. Francis of Assisi would have been a powerful addition to the relics of the two martyrs that were placed in the altar, St. Blanda (martyred in 232) and St. Vercundus (martyred in 522).
This past fall, the Knights of Columbus at Nancy’s parish hosted a Sunday afternoon pig roast. Few things bring people together better than a good old fashioned pig roast. In fact, even Bishop Hying attended, first celebrating mass for the faithful of Edgerton.
Nancy has always liked to sing. She taught herself how to play the guitar, and though she has no formal training, she writes music, as well. She cantors at the weekend masses at St. Joseph Parish in Edgerton. Nancy was nervous when she found out she’d be cantoring at a mass celebrated by the Bishop. However, if anyone would have a suggestion of where her relic should end up, it would be the Bishop.
After mass, she found Bishop Hying and told him about the relic. When she asked him if he had any suggestions on who she should gift the relic to, the Bishop explained to Nancy that he had recently dedicated the expanded St. Francis of Assisi Chapel at Camp Gray. Perhaps her relic would be a perfect addition to Camp Gray.
That’s how it came to be that on a random Tuesday morning in late October, Tim Chaptman received a call from a kind woman named Nancy. It’s not everyday that the folks at Camp Gray receive unsolicited calls from people offering to donate the relics of immensely popular 800 year old saints.
Needless to say, Tim couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing.
Nancy had never heard of Camp Gray (Rest assured, we’ve opened an investigation with Camp’s marketing department to determine why there are those in the Diocese of Madison with no knowledge of Camp Gray). She asked if she could visit so she could meet the staff and see the newly dedicated St. Francis of Assisi Chapel.
A couple weeks later, Nancy and her sister, arrived at Camp Gray with St. Francis in tow. She said she felt at peace right away.
“All those smiling and joyful people seemed so excited and grateful. I just knew the relic should go to Camp Gray,” she recently shared.
For nearly an hour, Nancy spent time in the Chapel with the Camp Gray crew. She shared stories of her family, spoke about the relic, and told of her long and winding journey of faith that led her to that moment. Additionally, she brought her guitar and played a beautiful song she’d written, because nothing accompanies such a wonderful moment better than angelic music.
Fr. Luke made sure he was around, as well. For more than a year he’d worked to obtain a relic of St. Francis, even urging Bishop Hying to petition Rome! All along, a kind woman in Edgerton was looking to give her St. Francis of Assisi relic to a worthy home.
Sometimes it can seem as though the answer to a prayer is “No.”
Perhaps more often the answer is, “Not yet.”
It would have been a beautiful blessing to have a relic of St. Francis of Assisi placed within the altar of Camp Gray during the dedication mass.
Instead, a proper reliquary is being built to display this most generous and wonderful addition to Camp Gray. It seems almost more fitting to have the relic of St. Francis of Assisi on display so that for years to come, all that come to Camp Gray can venerate Nancy’s wonderful gift.
For more than a year, the staff at Camp Gray prayed to find a relic of St. Francis of Assisi. For more than a year, Nancy prayed to find a new home for her beloved relic of St. Francis.
Nancy summed it up well, “I truly believe it was an answer to both of our prayers.”
2023 marks 70 years since the founding of Camp Gray. What a gift it is to kick off this year with an expanded Chapel, with a relic of St. Francis of Assisi, and with renewed vigor to spread the Gospel to all those that come to Camp Gray!