|Camp Marymount, a traditional overnight summer camp in the Diocese of Nashville, is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. The old lodge sits at the center of camp and is still used for meeting space and activities. The simple, rustic environment of camp has appealed to children and families from Tennessee and surrounding states for generations. While the summer camp remains the heart and soul of Marymount, the facilities are available year-round to rent for retreats and special events. Marymount is the only Catholic summer residential camp in the Southeast. Photo by Theresa Lauarence
For generations of young people, Camp Marymount in Fairview, Tenn., has served as a touchstone, much more than just a place to spend a few weeks in the summer. It’s a place where lifelong connections are made and unbreakable bonds are forged over campfires, on gypsy trips, in cabins and late night conversations under the stars.
Marymount veterans can trade stories and “talk camp” for hours, but Nashville resident Jose Gonzalez, who spent 14 summers at Marymount as a camper and counselor, sums it up for many with just a few words. “I loved it. It changed my life.”
Gonzalez, originally from Mexico, met his future wife at camp, and they settled in Nashville to raise their two children.
As Camp Marymount celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, its leaders are encouraging former campers and counselors from across the generations to “reconnect, remember, and rekindle.” There will be a special Marymount in May gala fundraiser at camp on May 2, and a Reunion Camp family weekend, Aug. 8-10.
|Some vintage Camp Marymount photos show past campers in familiar scenes. Above, a young Father Mike Johnston, now pastor of St. Henry Church in Nashville, can be seen in the back of a camp pickup truck in this undated photo. Photo courtesy of Camp Marymount
Marymount director Tommy Hagey said it is “humbling” to lead a camp with such a rich tradition. When he reflects on the 75th anniversary, “I think about those who came way before me and laid the foundation for what Marymount is today.” The anniversary year “is not only celebrating the past, but getting the alumni excited about the future.”
The Southeast’s only Catholic summer residential camp, Marymount draws hundreds of girls and boys of all ages from Tennessee, surrounding states, even Mexico and Canada. There are more beautiful camps out there, ones with better views and better amenities, but Marymount’s selling point is not its grand vistas or state of the art facilities. In fact, Marymounters pride themselves on their tenacity, resourcefulness, their willingness and ability to have fun after all the usual creature comforts are stripped away.
What makes Marymount special is “the simplicity of life,” Gonzalez said. “It doesn’t matter where you come from or how much money you have,” he said, because at camp, everyone is on a level playing field, new to each other, ready to survive and thrive together in the weeks ahead. Campers are expected to work together as a team, push themselves to try new things, and be open to the experience.
|A group of girls session campers and counselors pose for a photo in 1951. Among them is Susie Pierini Hagey, mother of Camp Marymount director Tommy Hagey. In the photo, Mrs. Hagey is on the first row, second from right. Photos courtesy of Camp Marymount
Gonzalez’s children now attend Marymount, and their experience is strikingly similar to his own “The thing about camp is it’s timeless, it hasn’t changed that much,” he said.
Yes, some newer buildings have been added recently, but the rustic, communal living environment, as well as most of the activities, have remained the same for decades.
Camp Marymount’s roots reach back to 1939 to Camp Happy Hollow in Joelton, Tenn., which was a small Catholic residential camp owned by the Diocese of Nashville.
In the fall of 1945, the late Msgr. George Rohling saw a classified ad for a fishing camp for sale in Fairview. He visited the property and learned that the owner wanted $12,000 for the 147 acres, so he put up the money and sealed the deal. He thought it would be the ideal place for the diocese to expand its summer camp.
Msgr. Rohling didn’t have permission from the diocese to buy the Fairview property at the time, but fortunately they approved it and opened the new Camp Marymount the following summer.
When Marymount first opened its screened doors in its current location in 1946, it had a small lodge, an infirmary, nine cabins, and an outdoor chapel. Two years later, senior camp was added to better accommodate older campers. St. Anthony’s Chapel was dedicated in 1951. Then, for over 50 years, Marymount’s buildings remained nearly unchanged.
It wasn’t until 2008 that major renovations and additions were completed at the camp. That year a new dining hall, offices, meeting rooms, and winterized staff cabins were added, allowing the camp to operate on a year round basis, giving it the ability to host retreats and special events. A new chapel was also added, named St. George’s Chapel, in honor of the young priest who took the risk and saw the potential for a bigger and better Catholic summer camp in Middle Tennessee.
|Counselor Natalie Goodrum, left, instructs Marymount campers in a canoeing activity during the 2013 girls summer camp session. For 75 years, Marymount campers have enjoyed traditional summer camp activities including canoeing, horseback riding, arts and crafts and campouts. While some of the facilities have been updated in recent years, the basic camp experience has remained unchanged for generations. Photo by Theresa Laurence
Today, Camp Marymount has a total of 340 acres, 18 rustic camper cabins, four cabins for support staff and retreats, an outdoor amphitheater, nature center, and a 5-acre spring fed lake.
A tradition across generations
Hagey, who has served as the camp’s director for 17 years, is himself a second generation Marymounter. Both of his parents attended camp, and seven of his eight children have attended so far. “If we ever did a Marymount family tree ours would be pretty extensive,” he said.
Hagey’s mother, Susie Pierini Hagey, remembers spending her summers at Marymount’s original incarnation, Camp Happy Hollow. She remembers making “such good friends” there, but she also recalls that those summers during World War II: “we ate Spam every day” in the camp dining hall. “But I loved it,” she said. “I still love it. I’d go back now if I wasn’t 81,” she said with a laugh.
When the Hageys visit their son and his family at Marymount these days, they usually go during the off season, when it’s quieter, and Jim can fish with his son and grandsons, and just enjoy the beauty of the outdoors. Jim recalls that the first year he went to camp, Mass was celebrated every morning. He wasn’t Catholic at the time, and guesses he was “the only non-Catholic out there,” but he fell into step with his cabin mates when it was time to go to communion and received the host on his tongue like everybody else. “That was my introduction to the Catholic religion,” he said.
Daily Mass is no longer offered at Marymount; it can be difficult these days to find a priest who can celebrate one weekend Mass at camp. But its Catholic heritage runs deep. There is a spiritual director on staff who helps campers lead daily prayer services, and diocesan seminarians sometimes spend part of the summer at Marymount. Campers and counselors are traditionally drawn from Catholic schools not only in Nashville, but also from Memphis and New Orleans, among other core cities.
Lisa Rice Farnsworth remembers a big group of girls attending Marymount from her high school, Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans. Now Farnsworth’s daughter Meghan is following in her mother’s footsteps, and attends both Sacred Heart and Camp Marymount.
“I wanted her to love it as much as I did, and I think she does,” Farnsworth said of her daughter. In fact, Meghan, 13, is attending camp for the full five weeks girls session this summer. In early April, “she already has her trunk out in her room ready to pack.”
Back in Nashville, 16-year-old Caroline Weishaar, a sophomore at Father Ryan High School, is getting ready for her own five-week stay at Marymount, her last year as a camper. One thing she won’t be packing is her smartphone. “The atmosphere at camp,” she said, “there’s no worry about school and drama and having your phone. It’s like you’re away from the world,” she said.
But will she miss checking in on the latest Instagram photos and Facebook posts? The answer is an emphatic no. Unplugging from technology “does not matter at all,” she said. “You don’t even think about it once.”
Of course it’s easier to live “off the grid” when there is no option to plug in. Campers are asked leave all tech devices at home and they do not have access to computers or the internet during their stay at camp. Good, old fashioned snail mail is encouraged for correspondence between campers and their families at home.
Parents as well as campers welcome their children’s break from technology. “I’m looking forward to my 13-year-old not having her phone for five weeks,” Gonzalez said. “So she can sit at the table and engage in conversation with friends.” At camp, it’s all about making real, honest connections with people.
Gonzalez still remembers those first connections he made when he came to Marymount from Monterrey, Mexico, as a 13-year-old camper, sent by his parents to immerse himself in American culture and learn English. “It was sink or swim,” said Gonzalez, and with no other Spanish speakers around, he did learn English quickly. Like so many before and after him, he “drank the Kool-Aid” and was hooked on the entire Marymount experience.
When Gonzalez’s daughter Ana begged him to let her go to camp for the entire five week girls session this summer, he was reluctant, but eventually gave in, recalling how he always wanted to book the last possible plane reservation home so he could stay at camp as long as possible. “I remember,” he said. “I get it.”
The Camp Marymount two week girls session runs June 1-June 13; the girls three-week session runs June 15-July 4. There are still a few openings for the girls sessions. This year for the first time, boys will have the choice to attend for one, two or three weeks. The boys one-week session is July 6-11, and the two-week session is July 13-25. There are still openings for the boys session. For more information visit www.campmarymount.com or call (615) 799-0410.
Marymount in May gala
Friday, May 2, 6:30 p.m.
$75 per person, sponsorships available