Sounds of summer: Gaylord’s Camp Sancta Maria returns after a year’s hiatus

On the final night of the first week of girls camp at Camp Santa Maria in Gaylord, girls from each cabin present skits as the campfire burns in the foreground. After a year of silence at the 88-year-old Catholic summer camp because of COVID-19, the sounds of camp activities are beginning to return. (Photo courtesy of Camp Sancta Maria)

After taking its first summer off in more than 85 years, tradition returns to Catholic summer camp cherished by generations of families

GAYLORD — At the corral, a horse neighs as an eager young camper awaits his turn to ride. Near the high ropes course, shouts of encouragement, then victory, fill the surrounding woods. And in the evening, the voices of more than 70 boys singing praise and worship songs float out of the chapel during night prayer.

The familiar sounds heard this week at Gaylord’s Camp Sancta Maria bring a sense of relief to camp director John David Kuhar on the heels of a difficult year. 

After sitting idle in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the camp opened its cabin doors to young people for the first time on June 13.

The Catholic residential camp hosts girls ages 8 to 16 for the first week of the season in June and the camp’s final week in August, with seven weeks of boys camps in between. Camp Sancta Maria offers traditional summer camp activities but sets itself apart with a focus on Jesus. Prayer is built into the day as much as the fun is, starting with daily Mass and ending with night prayer in the chapel. 

Challenging times

A year ago, the only noise at Camp Sancta Maria, located in Gaylord but spiritually supported by the Archdiocese of Detroit, was the sound of an occasional lawnmower, operated by Kuhar, who spent five weeks there with his wife and daughter. The time was spent taking care of maintenance tasks and the business that comes with closing a camp for a season: questions from parents, paperwork, more questions.

A group of girls ride horses at Camp Sancta Maria in Gaylord. Girls camps are held two weeks each summer, one in June and one in August. Last year all camps were canceled because of the pandemic. (Courtesy of Camp Sancta Maria)

Since Camp Sancta Maria opened in 1933, the summer of 2020 was the only year it did not operate. The decision to close wasn’t easy. 

When schools shuttered in March 2020, camp enrollment was up for the approaching season. But soon, a week of uncertainty turned into two, then three, and the prospect of being able to open seemed to fade by the day.

“We were asking ourselves, ‘What if we can’t open camp?’ and ‘Should we open camp, even if we can?’ The first priority is always the health and safety of our campers,” Kuhar said. 

Kuhar knew it would be difficult to run programs with everyone six feet apart. The “buddy system” employed at the beach would be nearly impossible. The number of campers in a cabin would likely have to be reduced by half or more, making it fiscally unsound to open. 

The weeks ticked by. As guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, the state of Michigan, and the American Camp Association were released, Kuhar and Camp Sancta Maria’s board of directors decided to cancel the first one-week session of camp and all mother-daughter and father-son weekends. 

Deacon Jacob Thomas of the Diocese of Kalamazoo, a former camp counselor, preaches during Mass at Camp Sancta Maria. This year, campers will wear masks in the chapel to comply with COVID-19 guidelines.

On May 23, Kuhar emailed parents to announce the heartbreaking news that camp would not open at all. 

Suddenly, another question loomed: Would the camp be able to survive financially without opening for season? The annual benefit dinner, which was planned for March and raises a substantial amount of money for the operating budget, had to be canceled. The summer golf outing was postponed.

“We were definitely concerned, but we knew to trust in God’s goodness and His grace,” Kuhar said. “If not for our donors and camp families, I’m not sure what we would have done.”

Nearly all of the people who bought tickets for the benefit dinner donated the cost of their tickets. Some families donated their camp tuition. The golf outing eventually took place in August with 24 additional golfers registered.

Camp Sancta Maria ended the year with a loss, but survived. 

The tradition continues

Camp Sancta Maria has earned a place in the hearts of those who have spent time there. Many current campers heard stories from their fathers and grandfathers who attended.

“One of my favorite things about camp is when alumni stop by,” Kuhar said. “One man in his 90s who had been to camp in the 1930s visited a few years ago. He had come to camp one summer and talked about it ever since. Camp had impacted him that much in a short amount of time.”

The low ropes course at Camp Sancta Maria helps the youth to grow in teamwork and brotherhood. Here, two counselors try the “wobbling woozy,” an exercise of balance and trust, while a camper stands below as a “spotter” to prevent them from falling over.

Campers gather each day at noon to pray the Angelus in front of a statue of Mary. Prayer and daily Mass are built into the day along with traditional camp activities such as swimming, archery and horseback riding.

Krystal and Pat Gipson of Midland have seven children: six boys and a girl. Their oldest son first went to Camp Sancta Maria at age 8 on recommendation from his two older cousins. This summer, four of the Gipson boys will experience camp together, but in different cabins with other boys their age.

“We’re building a legacy in our family, a Camp Sancta Maria legacy,” Krystal Gipson said. “As much as we practice our faith as a family, we can’t duplicate what they do at camp when they’re home. We want them to grow and be among other boys with all the adventures that come with it, all while being steeped in the faith.”

The Gipsons have attended father-son and mother-daughter weekends at the camp and invited others to join them. They want friends and family to see why they think Camp Sancta Maria is a special place.

Our Lady of Good Counsel parishioners Nikki and Adam Van Dis have sent their daughter, Krista, to Camp Sancta Maria for three years. Krista already attended this year’s first week of girls’ camp and will return in August for the second. Their 13-year-old son, Nate, has been to Camp Sancta Maria once and will go again in July. 

Earlier this month, Krista Van Dis and her mother, Nikki, pose in front of the cabin where Krista spent a week at Camp Sancta Maria. This is the fourth summer Krista has attended the Gaylord camp. She enjoys the camp so much that she will return for another week later this summer. (Courtesy of Nikki Van Dis)

“We absolutely love everything about Camp Sancta Maria,” Nikki Van Dis said. “Every year when we drive home, I hear the excitement and joy that they have, how good they feel about themselves, and then that faith component comes out. It’s so worth it, to have such a crazy amount of fun combined with the faith. I would drive 10 hours one way for them to have that.” 

Nikki believes she knows the secret to Camp Sancta Maria’s success.

“I think what they do best at camp is choosing the counselors,” she said. “They’re so solidly Catholic, and so cool and so much fun. They facilitate an authentic Catholic faith that’s appealing, and I think that draws in the kids more than anything.”

While Camp Sancta Maria is not financially supported by the Archdiocese of Detroit, the archdiocese provides a chaplain most years, and many of the counselors are seminarians. Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron was a counselor when he was in seminary, and he has also served as chaplain. Even now, Archbishop Vigneron likes to stay connected with the camp by celebrating Mass when he can fit it into his schedule. 

High hopes

Giovanni and Lauren Vitale will send two of their sons to Camp Sancta Maria for the first time this year. Giovanni learned about the camp when a seminarian asked him to write a letter of recommendation to be a counselor. Vitale decided to look into it for his sons. 

“From everything I read and heard about Camp Sancta Maria, the focus is on Christ, which is what we were looking for,” Giovanni Vitale said. “That, and my son, Leo, is really excited about using a bow and arrow.”

Fr. Joseph Kirkconnell, current chaplain of Camp Sancta Maria, performs a “blessing of the armory” before campers arrive, blessing each cabin and praying with the counselors.
Boys play a game at Camp Sancta Maria on a chilly day earlier this week. Campers stay in cabins with others their own age and two counselors. This year the number of people in each cabin has been reduced because of COVID-19 guidelines.

Vitale anticipates Camp Sancta Maria will provide a solid spiritual experience for his sons, as well as fraternity with new friends and the seminarians and priests who serve there.

“I hope it will allow our sons, especially our 11-year-old, the opportunity to make their Catholic faith their own — to take ownership of it by having that independent experience,” he said. “I think it will be an opportunity to look around and see other kids who come from other Catholic families and say, ‘Look, we’re not the only ones.’”

In a year when parish interactions have been limited, Kuhar believes Camp Sancta Maria is more important than ever for building community. And for boys and girls who have spent much of the year on screens, the camp’s technology-free environment could be just what the doctor ordered.

“In today’s society where there are so many distractions, to be tech-free and have a break from that distraction gives the Lord an opportunity to speak,” Kuhar said. “I hope they can grow in their relationship with the Lord, and also grow as young men and women. The walls come down as the kids are having fun with their fellow campers out in nature, and with the prayer built in, soon the Lord just starts to work in their heart.”

Summer camp registration

Camp Sancta Maria has a few openings for remaining camp dates this summer. Information can be found at or by calling (231) 546-3878.