Camp Lawrence, a woodland sanctuary for tens of thousands of the Gary Diocese children youth over the decades, must take its own break this summer.
Bishop Donald J. Hying said Monday canceling this year’s summer camp activities is frustrating, but unavoidable to give contractors the time to complete a major upgrade to the 60-year-old electrical and natural gas infrastructure on Valparaiso’s north side.
Paul B. Wengel, executive director for the Northwest Indiana Catholic Youth Organization, which operates the summer camp, said they couldn’t ensure it would reopen by early June in time for the more than 600 campers.
“There is a lot of confusion and upset people. I feel sorry for the 14-year-olds who were planning to go there for their last year. The counselors look forward to their stipend too,” Wengel said.
The bishop said he thought the camp appeared neglected when he first saw it more than three years ago.
“I presented to the priest council several years ago, that we need to do one of two things, sell Camp Lawrence or we need to invest significantly in it. Just to maintain it wasn’t moving it forward,” he said.
The diocese has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in improvements in recent years and plans to spend another $200,000 this year to improve electrical service enough to offer air conditioning in the bunk rooms.
Wengel said leaks in the natural gas pipe lines that service the dozen buildings on the camp’s 120 acres require a complete rebuild of the system that has to be coordinated with the Northern Indiana Public Service Company and local government.
He said some have complained why the work couldn’t have been done during the camp’s off season, but he said by the time they realized the gravity of the current problems, no work could start until late spring when the ground thaws out.
Wengel said he hopes people will understand this year’s closure is necessary for the safety of future campers and staff and will return next year.
Monsignor Lawrence Grothouse first opened Camp Lawrence began in 1959 at 68 E. 700 North, Valparaiso. It has been a summer home to more than 40,000 children of all religions from as far as Texas and Alaska.
Terri Overhage of Crown Point remembers Camp Lawrence fondly.
“I was in fourth grade at Holy Rosary School on Clark Street about 1962 when they passed out fliers for the camp for us to take home.
“I remember my parents driving 40 miles to the camp and they saw the World War II Quonset huts we were staying in. I remember my mother said, “Oh, we’ll take you home if you don’t want to stay, but I said I wanted to stay.
“The Quonset hut were hot. We had trouble getting the windows open and there was only a screen door and maybe a fan to let air in.
“We woke up about 7 a.m. and went into a big hall for breakfast. The food wasn’t all that bad. They had this big fountain we all stood around and brushed our teeth.
“Then we would do arts and crafts, archery, we would walk into the woods to collect leaves. There was an old Depression era car that somebody said was like the one Dillinger drove parked in the woods and we’d look at that.
“Everybody had to swim in that lake. There was a dock and a diving board. The last day we would have skits and sang songs. I only stayed a week, but I heard some doctor’s kids stayed for several weeks,” Overhage said.
Hying said he hopes in the near future there will be donations to sponsor enough improvements to build up the camp into an all season conference center where adults could hold spiritual retreats.
“It is for a far greater good,” Hying said in his announcement at the Diocese Pastoral Center in Merrillville.
Wengel said, “We lose it for one summer, but it will then be around for another 60 years.”