SCRANTON — Over 200 people gathered in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral on Sunday before 10 o’clock Mass wearing camp shirts and holding signs that implored their bishop to “KEEP Camp St. Andrew OPEN.”
Although those holding the green and yellow signs were protesting a recent decision by Diocese of Scranton Bishop Joseph C. Bambera to close the camp located in Tunkhannock due to declining numbers of campers in recent years, they were also offering thanksgiving for the opportunity to have attended the camp, which many said was a spiritual experience.
Campers who attended the Mass also spoke of deep and lasting friendships that developed over campfires, late night chat sessions and early morning swims.
Susanna Finn, originally from the Back Mountain, and Maura Houston, of Clifton, New Jersey, forged their friendship as 8-year-olds after “scary story night.”
“We all slept in bunk beds in a cabin,” said Houston, “but we were so scared, we put all the mattresses on the floor and huddled together to protect ourselves from the monsters we thought we heard lurking outside.”
Not only did Finn and Houston remain friends throughout these many years, last year Houston made Finn’s wedding cake, describing it as a tiered confectionery creation, a tribute to friendship and commitment which the camp seems to embody.
Finn not only attended the camp, but went on to become a counselor and then program director.
Sunday found her wearing necklaces with colorful beads made by campers in the “hundred bead challenge,” which she said have become a treasure.
Reflecting on the closing of the camp, Finn said, “It feels like somebody died, like I lost my best friend.”
Houston, whose father also attended the camp, said she was hoping that her children would someday be third-generation campers there.
Many other former campers eagerly shared stories about camp life in a cabin, the rigors of camp activities including basketball and swimming, and enjoying the expansive 500 acre property.
Both in a public statement and in his sermon, Bambera welcomed the input of the campers as a show of thanksgiving for Camp Saint Andrew and Project Hope.
“The Diocese has been and continues to be in discussion with United Neighborhood Centers of Northeastern Pennsylvania about options for the possible future use of camp facilities,” he said.
Project Hope is a youth day program that has been held each summer at the camp, hosting about 500 Lackawanna County youth who might not otherwise have the opportunity to participate in a camp experience.
Michael McHale, Project Hope director, hopes to see the program return to Camp St. Andrew this summer, by design or by miracle.
“We will have a summer program for needy children, I just don’t know what that will look like,” he said.
McHale’s daughter Maggie, 20, has also participated in the program, first as a camper and then as a counselor.
“Not only did my daughter have a good time, she learned leadership skills and self esteem,” he said. “We’ve been all over the world, and yet, each summer, she looks most forward to coming to camp.”
McHale emphasized that Bambera had been kind and gracious to those who were opposed to the closing of the camp.
The issue, he said, was not a divisive one, but one in which all those involved were looking to the best benefit of young people in the community.
With Bambera closing the service with encouragement to “go in peace,” campers did indeed seem to enjoy greeting each other with a hug, sharing a story or catching up about recent family news.
“Its been 75 years,” said Kozlowski, referring to the camp’s history. “We’re hoping for a 76th year.”
Reach Geri Gibbons at 570-991-6117 or on Twitter @TLGGibbons.