The incredible mission and history behind Camp Ondessonk is the result of the vision and efforts of many people.
With blessings from His Excellency, The Most Reverend Albert R. Zuroweste, Monsignor John T. Fournie led St. Philip Parish of East St. Louis in creating a summer program for its children by renting the facilities of Camp Piasa and Camp Vandeventer. After successful summers in 1957 and 1958, great interest from other Diocese of Belleville parishes stimulated expansion beyond St. Philip Parish. In 1959, Camp St. Philip evolved into Camp Ondessonk.
After much consideration, a 300-acre tract of land was purchased adjacent to the Shawnee National Forest of Southern Illinois. The scenic beauty of the region lent itself to picturesque exploration in an area now considered by many to be among the most beautiful and diverse ecosystems in the United States. An example of this diversity is illustrated by native Sugar Maple trees of Northern climates and native Swamp Cypress trees of Southern climates growing within the Ondessonk Valley. Over the years, several land acquisitions have been made. Camp Ondessonk now covers 983 acres, much of which is undisturbed and managed as wilderness. Further, its proximity to the Shawnee National Forest allows visitors even more land to explore.
The word “Ondessonk” is a Huron word meaning “Bird of Prey.” It was a name given to St. Isaac Jogues, a Catholic Jesuit priest that came to North America from his native France in the early 17th century to bring the Gospel to the Huron people of Quebec. He gave his entire life to them, with the ultimate ending of torture and martyrdom. Several other Jesuit Missionaries, working among the Huron during this time, were martyred as well. These martyrs and their Native American companions provided inspiration for spiritual development at Camp Ondessonk; the camping units, lakes, and major landforms were named in their honor.
While Camp Ondessonk’s facilities continue to improve, much remains the same since 1959. Ondessonk campers still sleep under the stars on Wednesday nights, they live in wonderfully rustic open-air cabins, they swim in cool, bluff-flanked creeks, and they still hear the calls of whippoorwills at night. It is truly a last frontier – a place where living in the outdoors can be enjoyed to the fullest.