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Restored Camp Abbey: A boon to young church

“God lives at Camp Abbey,” said Monique Pontiff and other former campers, counselors and administrators Nov. 30 at the dedication of the newly renovated Camp Abbey Retreat Center in Covington. “This is the real deal. ... Amazing things happened in our faith here. It guided us.”

The positive faith experiences at the camp by so many prompted Archbishop Gregory Aymond to restore the site not only for youth during the summer but for young adults and families.

“A few of us had the bright idea it needed to be opened, and here we are,” Archbishop Aymond jested while celebrating Mass in the chapel and blessing the buildings. He called the camp’s reopening an “important and historic day” for the archdiocese, an opportunity “for the formation and education of our young church.”

Just as the apostle Andrew – on whose feast day the dedication was held – pointed his brother Peter to Jesus, Archbishop Aymond said he hoped the camp and its workers would strengthen the faith of the young church and encourage youth to be examples for others.

“These buildings will teach our young people to be bold and courageous in living their faith,” Archbishop Aymond said.

John Smestad, director of the archdiocesan Catholic Youth Organization and Young Adult Ministry, called Camp Abbey a powerful place that has been a “faith home” to thousands of campers and counselors. He called it a labor of love to spearhead the project that included renovating five cabin buildings (sleeping 220 campers), the dining hall, administrative building, lodge and infirmary, and swimming pool.

Construction continues on a 2,500-square-foot addition to the dining hall to be used for breakout sessions.

Generous donations

The renovation was made possible by two donations of $1 million each from Tom and Gayle Benson and the Stella Roman Foundation. Archbishop Aymond was humbled by the Bensons’ unrestricted gift. When told his gift would benefit youth, Tom Benson said he wholeheartedly agreed.

“I’m a big proponent of the youth,” Benson said. “With the (New Orleans) Saints, we have youth at the training facility every weekend. After all, they are our future.”

Benedictine Abbot Justin Brown of St. Joseph Abbey, from whom the Archdiocese of New Orleans is leasing the property for $1 a year, is pleased how the archdiocese overhauled the site and kept in mind the importance of fortifying faith in youth and young adults.

“We were hoping it would be used for the youth in the future,” Abbot Justin said. “We’re happy and grateful to the archdiocese and the archbishop.”

Father John Arnone, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, Violet, and St. Bernard churches, was Camp Abbey’s assistant director for two years and general program manager for one year while studying at St. Ben’s. He was master of ceremonies at the dedication.

“It’s exciting (to see the renovations),” he said. “We took the good, and we are going to build on it and make it better.”

Wonderful memories

Former camper, counselor and administrator Billy O’Regan said the camp has always been a spiritual place for those who attended. Meeting seminarians opened the possibility of a religious vocation and shaped his life.

“This was and will be a camp for the kids in the summer to experience the big church, the diocesan-wide church with a capital ‘C,’” O’Regan said. “We don’t have that year-round, where kids can be kids, experience faith and have the Eucharist multiple times during the week.”

In addition to summer camp, Camp Abbey Retreat Center will host retreats, community meetings and events year-round.

Archbishop Aymond also is coordinating family retreats at the center with Jason Angelette, the Willwoods Community’s faith and marriage ministry director. Reservations are ongoing for “A Family That Prays” retreat weekend in November 2012 where parents will use St. Joseph Abbey Christian Life Center, and children will use Camp Abbey Retreat Center and come together at retreat’s end for family-centered presentations at Camp Abbey.

Angelette wants to capture the insights gained by couples and youth individually on retreats by bringing them together on the same weekend to further their faith and “grow in Christ as a family.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion