The New Altar at Camp Ekon
By Chris Krall, SJ
Camp Ekon was founded on a rich and powerful heritage of native culture, Jesuit spirituality, Lake Joseph history, and summer camp traditions. Many people, symbols, events, saints, heroes, legends, stories, prayers, and parables become interwoven in the dynamics of the Ekon experience.
Every week, new and old campers partake in rituals, relive the traditions, recall the saints and heroes, engage in all of the festivities, and bring to life the Camp's rich history. This is done through activities like the beginning of the week Monument Talk, the end of the week Council Ring Ceremony, a trip to Little Chief Island, and individual hut camp fires. More than all of these however, it's the unique Jesuit identity on which this camp is rooted.
Each week, all of the campers have the opportunity to celebrate holy Mass together. As the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Catholic life, so it is what all of Camp Ekon revolves upon, even if the young campers don't necessarily see it at first. Since Mass is so important, the place in which this celebration takes place must be sacred. A flat grassy spot near the beach was chosen as this 'holy ground' at Camp Ekon. The altar for the Mass in general bears so much symbolism relating to Christ as the sacrificial offering that will not be elaborated upon here. However, this particular altar of the camp, made in June of this summer and dedicated by Provincial Jim Webb, S.J., soon after on July 13 was designed and made to incorporate all the aspects of what is lived at Camp Ekon. These aspects will be explained.
The basic design of the altar is a replica of the architecture used throughout the original Stanley House, which was an elaborate hotel on the property of present day Camp Ekon. The double square pillars, each with a slant beam upward to a top cross beam, can be seen both in the present cafeteria as well as the second story porch of the Stanley House. Stanley House is now used by Camp Ekon as the general eating area as well as the living quarters for the camp staff. The altar mirrors this as a way to bring out the history present in this location. It also reminds us that the altar, Christ, who is through all ages, is also the one to go to for nourishment and shelter. The altar has two of these couplets of square pillars making a total of four pillars across the front. Each of these pillars also has a slant beam to the top cross beam in the altar. In a symbolic way, the pillar with this slant beam could be seen as a person with arms holding up the cross beam. So, there are four 'people' holding up the altar.
The heritage of Camp Ekon has always recognized four particular people as its patrons. Saint Ignatius Loyola, Saint Jean de Brébeuf, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, and Chief Joseph Chiwatenhwa are all models, heros, guides, and companions of Camp Ekon. Each year the staff at Camp Ekon is divided up into small faith groups named after each of these key figures. Each of the four beams represents each of these four critical people 'holding up' Camp Ekon. The facade of the altar is the shape of an upside-down canoe, recalling how canoes are carried during portages. Canoeing and going on trips on which portages are necessary is a central activity at Camp Ekon.
More than that, Saint Jean de Brébeuf after whom Camp Ekon is named, canoed and portaged a great deal when he first came to North America. Ekon is how the Wendat people heard the word Jean in their language.
The Jesuit Relations indicate that Brébeuf would often celebrate Mass on a beach on an up-side-down canoe. With this altar, we are following the example of the camp's patron saint and a great saint of the Church. Taking the symbolism further, each of the four people, represented in the pillars are carrying the canoe, as on a portage. Thus, Mass itself becomes a portage with all of Camp Ekon and the whole communion of saints. A portage, by definition, is the carrying of supplies and canoes on land from one lake to another to continue the total journey. In a very real way, that is exactly what the Mass is on the journey of life. The sacrifice of Christ carries us who partake in the sacrifice from death to new life, from the lake of this world to the ever-flowing fountain of the next. This is the image the altar intends to invoke.
Finally, all altars have an "altar stone." This is placed on the top of the altar where the consecration of bread and wine actually takes place. This stone has a relic of a particular saint inside of it and is from the old Jesuit Novitiate in Guelph, Ontario where young Jesuits in formation prayed and studied. This brings the strong Jesuit heritage to the camp. Very practically, the altar is made of pressure sealed cedar wood with the top made of a sealed pine, both of which have been recorded as the desired wood for building by the first Jesuits.
The hope is that this altar can be a solid structure used to celebrate Mass for many future generations at Camp Ekon. As each new child comes to the altar to pray, may they be reminded of the rich culture, history, and heritage he or she is a part of as they partake in the events of the camp. May the campers come to realize that they too are on a portage, seeking that fresh lake of everlasting life at the far end. They are not alone on this portage, as Saint Ignatius Loyola, Saint Jean de Brébeuf, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, Chief Joseph Chiwatenhwa, and all of the past generations of campers are with them, carrying the heavy load.
Christopher Krall, S.J., is a Wisconsin Province Scholastic who is currently in his second year of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. Chris spent this past summer helping out and experiencing life at Camp Ekon. He was given the task of setting up the Mass area near the beach. He was saddened to find the altar that had been used for Mass in previous years had fallen to disrepair. By collecting ideas and inspirations from the long-time staff members, Chris created a design and built the altar amidst the many other activities happening at Ekon. The altar continues to be a work-in-progress as future Ekon staff will be encouraged to enhance it with mosaics and touches to make it uniquely Camp Ekon's.