Connecting with Christ in nature

Young Catholics have an exciting new way to encounter Christ—at an adventure camp founded by a group of Pittsburgh priests.

Fathers Joe Freedy, Ken Marlovits, Adam Potter and Nick Vaskov, along with Byzantine Father Jason Charron, formed a nonprofit ministry, raised funds and purchased a 104-acre camp in Volant, Lawrence County.

The wooded site along Neshannock Creek is now Our Lady of Mount Carmel Adventure Camp and Retreat Center, where youths can seek Jesus in nature, the sacraments, and in one another.

After securing support from large and small donors, getting a clean property title and dealing with delays related to COVID, the sale was completed December 28.

“It was a day of incredible celebration and huge relief,” Father Freedy said. “Praise erupted in my heart as I said, ‘Thank you, God!’”

The priests began the evangelization effort because of the urgent need to help young people understand why they need a relationship with Jesus and his Church. One national study has found that 85 percent of those who are confirmed in 8th grade will no longer be practicing the faith by age 21.

Conversely, research also shows that about 90 percent of Catholics who remain active in the church past early adulthood can identify a special spiritual experience that triggered their faith commitment. A religious adventure camp fits that bill.

Father Nick Vaskov celebrates Mass at Camp Lajas in 2019.

Already, youth ministers are booking Saturdays to visit the camp for hikes and bonfires, according to Erin Stuvek, executive director of Dry Bones Ministries, the nonprofit created to run the facility.

The organization’s name comes from Chapter 37 in the Book of Ezekiel that describes a vision in which God brings his people back to life.

Safety is a high priority at the camp. Although the facility is not affiliated with the Diocese of Pittsburgh, staff and volunteers must comply with the same safe environment training, background checks and mandatory reporter certification required in parishes and schools.

They also follow all public health and safety rules, including mask-wearing, social distancing and crowd limits during the pandemic.

The camp has three lodges, 14 tent platforms, two pavilions, hiking trails and a basketball court. Plans call for adding a chapel, Divine Mercy shrine, Marian grotto, outdoor Stations of the Cross, ropes courses, zip lines, sand volleyball courts, climbing walls and a water slide.

Organizers are gearing up for four weeks of summer day camp for children entering 1st through 7th grade. In addition, Camp Lajas, a wilderness adventure camp for high school students, will be based there with plans to offer day trips for whitewater rafting, rock climbing, rappelling and hiking. The camp is expected to be open year-round.

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Relaxing after a day of high adventure at Camp Lajas in 2019.