BRISTOL — How much can change in fifty years?
At Camp St. Dorothy, less than you might think.
The Bristol summer camp, currently celebrating its Golden Jubilee, looks much the same as it always has. Just on the horizon, mist swirls around the reddish spires of the Mount Hope Bridge. In the foreground, a tired yellow Labrador, looking almost as ancient as the camp itself, languidly wags its tail to greet an approaching middle-aged couple.
“They met here, those two,” says Sister Mary Sardinha, motioning towards the pair. “First they were campers, then they were counsellors, and now they’re married. And they still come back to visit. It’s that kind of camp, you know?”
Sister Mary herself has been a nearly permanent feature of the camp since founding it in 1967. When the oceanfront property was acquired by the Sisters of St. Dorothy in 1960, Sardinha was working as a missionary in China. Upon returning to Bristol and touring the location, however, she knew immediately what she wanted to do with it.
“I remember walking onto this land and thinking to myself, ‘the only way we can justify the Order having this kind of property is by making it a place for children,’” she recalls. “I wanted to make it a place where children could see the beauty of nature and of God.”
And so Sister set to work turning the 14-acre estate into a children’s summer paradise. Her role in this transformation was more than merely administrative: Sister Mary was directly involved in turning the property’s three-car garage into “Camp HQ,” and even went so far as to earn her bus driver’s license in order to help transport campers. The sight of a nun in full habit standing in line with truckers and bus drivers at the DMV surprised more than a few passers-by.
“People kept asking if I was in the wrong line, and I’d say ‘No, no, I know what I’m doing,’” Sister says, laughing. “I was not going to pay some guy $200 to do something I could just do myself!”
Sister Mary no longer drives the bus (though she daringly pilots the camp’s golf cart off-road), but even in her eighties she remains as fiery as ever.
“I can’t stand the idea of sitting still. If you sit still too long at my age, you might die,” she says.
As tenacious as she is, however, even Sister Mary can sometimes use a hand running the camp. This role is filled by brothers Dan and Nate Svogun, assistant directors of Camp St. Dorothy.
In the winter, when the campground’s become a retreat center, the two are both graduate students at Fordham University. In the summer, however, they return to their native Ocean State to aid Sister Mary in leading the camp.
This certainly isn’t the first summer that the Svogun brothers have spent at Camp St. Dorothy: they both attended the camp as children, and worked here as counsellors during high school. “Honestly, I feel like this is the part of my life that’s changed the least in the past 20 years,” says Dan Svogun, the older of the two.
Nate nods in agreement, adding that it’s always reassuring to “come back to a place with values, a place where people actually believe in things.”
The activities haven’t changed substantially since the Svoguns were campers, when summer enrollment was about 130, more than three times what it is now in an age where children are involved in myriad sports and activities.
“I try to focus on the simple things, fun things,” Sister Mary explains. “We have art, play sports and games, learn about the Bible. Let me tell you, I have a Bible story flannel board that would even make the Protestants jealous,” she says with a mischievous sparkle in her eye.
In a market saturated with specialty summer camps, there is something charmingly old-fashioned in the structure of Camp St. Dorothy.
Children engage in time-honored camp classics: making crafts to bring home, performing in skits (mostly drawn from Scripture), playing on the camp’s extensive waterfront, and — perhaps the most popular entry on the list — a massive water balloon fight nearly Napoleonic in scope.
“One thousand balloons,” Sister Mary says seriously. “We have exactly one thousand balloons, and we intend to throw every last one of them.” The balloons, incidentally, are one of the few things that have changed at Camp St. Dorothy, something which particularly excites Sister Mary. “We have these new balloons now, self-tying ones. You just pop them off the faucet and they’re ready to toss. Whoever came up with these must have been absolutely brilliant. This is rocket science.”
One other change, alas, is shortly to come: Sister Mary has announced that this will be her final summer as director of Camp St. Dorothy. Due to academic commitments, neither of the Svogun brothers is able to assume the directorial position, and so the future of the camp remains uncertain.
Ideally, Sister Mary hopes to find someone interested in filling her place — she describes the perfect candidate as being someone who “understands kids, who loves kids, and who doesn’t mind being a little tough sometimes. You have to be able to be a little bit tough when you need to.”
She encourages anyone interested in applying for the position to contact Sister Sharon McCarthy, Vice Provincial of the Sisters of St. Dorothy at 917-841-1171.
Unless a qualified candidate arises soon, Sister fears that this will likely be the final year that Camp St. Dorothy remains open.
Whatever the future holds, however, it is clear that for the present, Camp St. Dorothy represents something truly special. It is not merely a summer haven for local children; it is not even just the product of one woman’s passionate desire to share the bounties of God and nature with her campers. It is a timeless place that weaves together generations of camp-goers and counsellors, and which will continue to live on in the hearts it has touched even if this should prove its final, golden summer.