Monsignor Joseph Lawler – an original Camp Ondessonk Pioneer
By Pati Egan
Chances are, if you went to St. Teresa Academy around 1967, you might have been taught by a young priest named Father Joseph Lawler. I recently spoke with now Monsignor Joseph Lawler about his deep connection to Camp Ondessonk.
In the late 1950s, Camp needed young skilled or unskilled workers to come down to the future site and create a Camp. Legendary young men like Gerald Montroy, Bill Clark, and Msgr. Joe were among these volunteers.
At that time, Msgr. Joe was in the seminary, and he was compelled to help with this very worthwhile and enormous project. He and his family lived on a farm near Ridgway, Ill., in Gallatin County. Owning a farm meant they had heavy equipment, so Msgr. Joe, his father, and brothers were recruited to work on the then defunct railroad bed that would become the main Camp Road. As you can imagine, this was an enormous project to widen the railroad bed and remove the remaining railroad ties.
Msgr. Joe mentioned the first structure he helped plan and build. He recruited some men from the Ridgway Knights of Columbus, and they built a corral for the future horses. None had experience with horses, even though they were all farmers. The corral was built but, unfortunately, they built it backwards. It didn’t take the horses long to figure out that they could kick the corral down and take off.
Camp had no place for volunteers to live. An old, abandoned farmhouse was used by the crews. The farmhouse was located on Pakentuck Road, close to the turn-off for Cedar Falls.
This farmhouse was known, for many years, as “The Deer Hunters Lodge.” It had no electricity or running water, but there was an old well close by. Durbin’s Barn is close to where the old farmhouse stood and near the Kane Lake area.
This area has had a major facelift and now is very nice. In Msgr. Joe’s day, it was quite rustic. I remember seeing the Deer Hunters Lodge as a camper. To get there from the main area of Camp one had to cross a barbed wire fence, pass a small, very algae bloom (slimy) farm pond, and hike through very tall grass. Msgr. Joe remembers gathering the tools needed for the day in feed sacks. These were carried on the backs of the workers. Camp’s first backpacks!
He remembers going in to “town” to a general store on the main road through Ozark (still the Main Street though it has never had that name) to buy bread and lunch meat every day for lunch. Treva (Ma) Barker ran that store in the early years of Camp, and during the first year Camp was being built, she would feed the hungry young workers who would pile into the store after dark. Ma had a special affection for Camp, and she befriended the people of Ondessonk, even though the local community was a bit suspicious of Camp.
Msgr. Joe’s proudest building project was the original Infirmary (Health Center). This was located on top of the rocks overlooking the Grotto, and close to the Original Dining Hall. He recalls wiring the building for electricity even though electricity was not yet available.
Another thing that stands out in Msgr. Joe’s mind was that since Camp did not yet have a well to provide water, a truck from Pepsi in Marion would deliver orange soda for the workers. He also recalls many area businesses donating materials – from nails to heavy equipment like tractors to help build Camp.
Msgr. Joe is still active in Camp activities. He frequently visits when the Ridgeway Knights of Columbus, Council #1581 volunteer. He will offer mass and enjoy dinner with the group. What makes an 87-year-old man return to the place where he spent many days working to create a Camp that is still as vibrant as he is?
Many of those early volunteers became the nucleus for the first Camp staff. They also formed a core of dedicated volunteers that served Camp for many years. I don’t know if they realized that their efforts in 1959 would be the beginning of a Camp that 60-plus years later is thriving and growing each and every year. I suppose that 40-plus years from now campers, staff, and volunteers will appreciate what these original volunteers did to build the foundation of Camp that just keeps getting better and better.
Click here to learn more about Camp Ondessonk’s mission and history.