A 57-acre, lakeside campground outside of Palmer is now home to a Catholic summer youth camp and wilderness retreat center.
Catholic Camp and Conference Ministries of Alaska, Inc., a newly formed independent nonprofit, took over the long-standing Camp Challenge from Alaska General Assembly of the Church of God — a group that has operated the summer camp since the mid-1960s.
In recent years, however, the Church of God has struggled to keep the camp in operation. In early 2012, St. Benedict Church in Anchorage held its annual teen confirmation retreat at Camp Challenge. Parishioner Rich Owens, owner of the Tastee Freez restaurants in Anchorage, was serving as cook for the winter retreat that year. That’s when he first learned that the camp property might be up for sale.
Motivated by a belief that the campground could become an integral part of future youth ministry and the rebuilding of Catholic culture across the Anchorage Archdiocese, Owens helped to form a nonprofit to purchase the camp.
“There are very few times in our lives when God puts something like this in front of us,” said Owens, who is now vice president of the new nonprofit.
AGREEMENT TO SELL
The Church of God agreed to sell the camp for $1 million. The facility includes a quarter mile of lakefront property, 14 buildings and dozens of undeveloped land for expanded hiking, horseback riding and wilderness camping. A 45-minute drive north of Anchorage, the property is already permitted to run as a camp with several retreats already having taken place in October and more scheduled for November. Lumen Christi High School, Holy Rosary Academy and St. Benedict Church youth group have all scheduled activities at the camp.
Owens said the goal is to purchase the property free and clear by 2018. But to do so, the nonprofit needs donors to step forward. In the meantime, the sellers are charging zero percent interest while funds are raised over the next five years.
REVIVING A CATHOLIC CAMP
The Catholic summer program will be called St. Theresa’s Camp, a reference to the former St. Theresa’s Camp in Soldotna, which closed in the late 1990s after three decades of operation.
But unlike the old Soldotna camp, the Mat-Su facility is much closer to the state’s largest population centers and therefore can serve many more people and organizations.
Through the coming winter, the Wilderness Lodge will be available to rent for youth groups, family ministries, retreats, confirmation classes, church groups and other community organizations. This summer an eight-week youth summer camp program will begin.
Camp Director Rudy Poglitsh, along with his wife Ruth and their five children are now stationed at the camp full time, coordinating bookings and maintaining the property. Rudy taught at Lumen Christi High School for three years in the late 1990s before he and his wife moved to Swaziland, Africa where he spent 10 years teaching school in a rural environment. Poglitsh said he is excited about his return Alaska and the opportunity to help launch a Catholic camp and retreat center.
“As a father of five children ages eleven years and under, I bring a strong concern for the safety and moral and spiritual growth of young people,” he said. “My seventeen years of high school math and science teaching experience, including three years at Lumen Christi, bring with them a passion for young people to come to know Jesus Christ as the most important and satisfying person in their lives.”
Poglitsh said he looks forward to developing the new camp in the years ahead.
“Through hosting camps and retreats, I am glad for the opportunity of helping Catholics understand the priceless gift of their Catholic faith better,” he said.
Poglitsh has already begun booking the camp for various groups and he encouraged interested parties to contact him right away.
SUPPORTING THE CHURCH
Father Leo Walsh, pastor of St. Benedict Church in Anchorage, is serving as temporary board president for Catholic Camp and Conference Ministries. He said the camp and retreat center will operate much like Bishops’ Attic or the Knights of Columbus.
“Those are not part of the Anchorage Archdiocese but they strongly support the work of the archdiocese,” he told the Catholic Anchor earlier this year. “This is also a group that is very much in union in heart and mind with the magisterium of the church, especially the archbishop of Anchorage. While it is an independent organization, we want to support the larger mission of the church.”
According to a promotional brochure, the camp aims establish a strong Catholic identity, both in the summer programming and in the physical construction of the property.
Plans include building a Catholic chapel and establishing a wilderness stations of the cross.
Unlike most other Christian camp facilities in Alaska, Father Walsh said the new camp will lend itself much more readily to Catholic liturgy and prayer.
BUILDING CATHOLIC CULTURE
Fostering a vibrant Catholic culture in which multiple age groups can forge friendships in an outdoor wilderness setting is one of the main goals of the project.
“The Catholic Church in our area has no facility for our Catholic youth,” the promotional brochure for the camp states. “Thus our children are being forced to attend other church camp programs where they are being actively recruited to become members of those faiths.”
By contrast, the new camp looks to provide opportunities “for our youth and general Catholic community to come together in a setting which creates a life-long bond, not only for children but also for adults.”
The camp is open for use by people of all faiths.
Owens has seen the value of Catholic summer camps first hand. He sent his now-grown children to the former St. Theresa’s Camp in Soldotna and also remembers attending Catholic summer camps as a child growing up in Montana.
“For a lot of kids, coming to a Catholic camp is the first time they get to see a little of the universality of the church,” he said. “And it’s a fun place where you’re living and acting in a Catholic environment. We haven’t had that up here since St. Theresa’s closed.”
Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz said he is pleased with the independent lay effort to establish a Catholic summer camp. While a strong supporter of the camp, he emphasized that the Anchorage Archdiocese does not own and will not be running or financing the camp facility.
“This is an example of how lay people can bond together and try to find a way to help evangelize youth through the proposed camp,” he said earlier this year, adding that he hopes the project might foster Catholic culture across generational lines.
“It’s like what we are trying to do in our Catholic schools, to create a Catholic family atmosphere,” Archbishop Schwietz observed. “Efforts like these are needed in our society — to rebuild the Catholic culture.”
St. Theresa’s Camp and The Wilderness Lodge will hold an open house on Nov. 11 from noon to 4 p.m. The gathering will include information on the 2014 summer camp schedule, volunteer opportunities, camp facilities and how supporters can assist in various projects. For more information, go online to c3ma.org. To inquire about financially supporting the effort to pay off the property, call Camp Director Rudy Poglitsh at (907) 232-2066 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.