It’s a bit exasperating when a journalist does a really nice job on many angles of a particular story, and elides others. It seems almost unseemly to say –hey, wait a minute, buster! If religion is a big part of the story, how come its not here?
That’s how I felt while reading this evocative article from the New York Times about the 100th anniversary of a boy’s camp in the Catskills.
You learn a lot about what the camp, with its tradition of inviting boys from disadvantaged backgrounds — there are some wonderful quotes about it how five weeks at the Lake Delaware Boys Camp changed their lives. Readers get a sense for both the rituals and the relative paucity of amenities, as well as the character-building ideals that shape camp values.
The attention to detail in other areas is why a certain apparent carelessness about some religious facts, and lack of background about others, stick out like a sore thumb.
Take this paragraph, for instance:
It is the antithesis of a resort. Picture a sports-centric boot camp with no ammunition in the wooden rifles and no cussing, mandatory daily church services and a weekly dress parade in military regalia. Campers are divested of iPods, cellphones and other battery-operated paraphernalia the instant they step off the bus, a sometimes tearful process.
The camp website says that attendance at weekly services is required. But this sentence, and a few others scattered throughout the story, raise a few questions that never really gets answered, except sideways — why require attendance at services? And are there religious values that are a part of the camp’s living heritage?
Since it’s not exactly evident, let’s play detective.
According to tradition established in 1909 by Robert Livingston Gerry — a descendant of Elbridge Gerry, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a vice president under James Madison — Lake Delaware days begin with Episcopal Mass and conclude with taps.
It is rather unusual to see a reference to “Episcopal Mass” a term used in this country by Anglo-Catholics to describe the eucharist. It is, of course, a more normative term among Roman Catholics. A little research revealed that Vice-President and Declaration signer Elbridge Gerry was an Anglican/Episcopalian (started as the first, ended as the second). I confess that I included this link, and another one, because I hadn’t known that both Lex Luthor and Batman were/are Episcopalians. That probably explains a lot.
But I still couldn’t figure out why the article mentioned a “Mass.” I’m guessing that someone at the camp used the term, and the reporter incorporated it into his story. In the New York Times archives, I found this 1913 letter, which lets us know that some members of the Gerry clan were Anglo-Catholics. (Fascinating to think that Anglo-Catholic clergy were being tagged as being not truly American). I also found that the Gerry’s have a tradition of charitable work on behalf of disadvantaged children.
You would think, then, that there is a connection between the faith of the Gerry family and a dedication to good works? But we don’t get that kind of background. Instead we get more clues:
The green clapboard chapel, with its wainscoted interior and rare 1877 organ made by Hilborne L. Roosevelt, a cousin of Teddy’s, has been the domain of the Rev. Ray Donahue since 1969.
At dawn, the camp’s folksy director, the Rev. James H. Adams, an Episcopal priest from Geneva, N.Y., who morphs into ‘the Colonel’ each summer — his wife, Sue, is known as the General — prowls Company Street, coffee cup in hand, in his regulation khakis. Mr. Adams is the kind of guy who can proclaim, “No bling when you’re on the climbing wall!” and get instant results.
What denomination is Donahue? Is he the chaplain And how about camp director Adams?
What does it mean to have a priest as camp director? You get two clergy roaming the camp, there’s probably some religious teaching going on. But nowhere do we find out what it is — or whether the boys return home having taken in something from a sermon or a talk or a chance encounter. Possibly, in this story, religious teaching is conflated with “character-building” — and that may be true for the camp. But given the Gerry’s family history, and its continued commitment to the camp, I doubt it. Instead, religious themes haunt the story, like, well, the ghost of a vibrant tradition in which faith and social activism could not sundered.
Picture of Elbridge Gerry from Wikimedia Commons