A centennial celebration honoring Camp Michigamme, the Northern Skies District camp, was held on August 13, 2022, with over one hundred people attending.
About 35 miles west of Marquette, there’s a camp on the shores of Lake Michigamme that has been the spiritual center for United Methodists in this region for generations. This year Camp Michigamme celebrates one hundred years of camping ministry in the Upper Peninsula.
On Saturday, August 13, over one hundred people gathered to celebrate the centennial of this beloved camp. It was an opportunity to worship together and thank God for many years of faithfulness, to eat together and reminisce, and to dream about the future.
It was a drizzly, cool day, so unfortunately the weather didn’t allow for many planned outdoor activities, but the gentle rain neither hampered the spirits of dedicated friends nor deterred them from traveling to Camp Michigamme for this special occasion.
The campgrounds were abuzz with activity, as one of their most popular camps was checking out and parents were arriving to pick campers up. Having the celebration coincide with the end of the camping season was an intentional decision made back in the spring.
Kelsie Coccia, director of Camp Michigamme, was part of the planning team and felt it was wise to wait until later in the season so that word could spread organically. She remembers thinking, “Let’s hold it the last Saturday of our last group, that way we can invite people throughout the summer to come and celebrate. Let’s celebrate closing our year off well.”
Another piece of this celebration was the inclusion of the Northern Skies District Conference, typically held later in the year, in the day’s events. History shows that having a district conference at Camp Michigamme is probably a first. This decision was also intentional to encourage people from all over the district to come and celebrate the camp’s anniversary.
The morning of the centennial celebration was wonderful. People were coming and going as district leaders and camp staff mingled with parents and campers and other friends of the camp who had come just to express gratitude for what the camp has meant to them over the years.
Rev. Kristi Hintz, co-pastor of Marquette Hope United Methodist Church and another member of the centennial’s planning team, witnessed what this collaborative celebration had done as the day unfolded. She noted, “[It was] such a clear example, or symbol, of how Camp Michigamme has been the heart and soul of the district, the place that has rooted this district in the past. And we know the future may look different.” So, it was important to set aside time for gratitude and celebration.
Built on Rock-Solid Faith
If you’ve been to Camp Michigamme, you know it’s not the camping experience you might expect. The camp itself was built on wide sections of granite and there are hills and uneven surfaces to navigate, so even walking around the grounds can be quite challenging.
Hampton Chapel, named after longtime camp manager Bill Hampton, is a bit of a climb and definitely not a simple stroll from the parking areas, especially when it’s rainy and cold. But friends of the camp came prepared wearing rain jackets and long pants and settled into the pews of the warm, dry log chapel to begin the day’s celebration.
Rev. Scott Harmon, district superintendent of the Northern Skies District, had invited Rev. Kate Croskery Jones, his colleague across the Wisconsin border, to preach and to co-preside at the communion table during the opening worship service. Harmon and Jones had worked closely together when Jones was district superintendent of the North East District of the Wisconsin Conference. They had been supportive of one another when clergy shortages in their districts called for creative solutions. She now pastors Wauwatosa Avenue UMC near Milwaukee.
Beginning with worship and communion was a fitting way to start the day. It set the tone for the day’s celebration and helped highlight the camp’s primary purpose of Christian discipleship.
Rev. Jones’ sermon was entitled “Stepping into an Unknown Future,” and her scripture text was from Matthew 24:15-27. She first noted that every age has its challenges and highlighted parallels from 1922 to today, including a pandemic which caused panic and suffering and a church that was deeply divided. She also said that the nature of ecclesiology is that branches break off. And in her words, the church has osteoporosis, a structure that is prone to fracture. What’s the best treatment for this chronic condition? It’s weight-bearing exercise, so there’s no reason for us not to be growing the church, no reason not to be making disciples of Jesus.
The challenge Rev. Jones issued to the leadership of Camp Michigamme, to the Northern Skies District, and to all those listening in the pews was to look for creative opportunities that may come out of the current situation we are in as The United Methodist Church.
Led by the Connectional Spirit of Methodism
Camp Michigamme is unique in that it is the only district-owned camp in the Michigan Conference. And it started that way from the very beginning with the vision of Rev. George Olmstead, district superintendent of the Marquette District at the time.
According to Alan Larsen’s history of Camp Michigamme, Olmstead felt there was a great need for a central location to build a meeting place for youth ministry in the Upper Peninsula. Larsen wrote, “He also had a desire to bring the adults of this large district together with the youth so that they could mentor the young people and get to know them and each other.”
After a series of connections, Olmstead found a man from Marquette who was willing to sell a piece of property on Lake Michigamme. So, on May 14, 1922, with a down payment of $10, Olmstead agreed to buy 92 acres on the shores of Lake Michigamme from Nels Olson, a widower, for $3,000. Soon after, plans were underway for the creation of a summer institute for young people that would provide a full camping and educational experience. It was quickly built and eventually became known as the Michigamme Methodist Institute.
Camp Michigamme’s identity is virtually inseparable from the district. So, having the district conference at the camp this year in conjunction with the centennial celebration felt like a meaningful thing to do, to bring people together again after a long season of separation. This was the first in-person district conference since 2019. And it proved to be a beneficial time of mutual encouragement and sharing of ideas among churches.
“In the Northern Skies,” says Rev. Harmon, “our churches are in geographically diverse areas. We are isolated in our congregations and in our communities a lot. And so, the district serves as that reminder—the district conference—that we’re not alone in our ministries, that we are connected with one another, and connected to something larger than just ourselves.”
The Northern Skies District is the Michigan Conference’s largest district measured by square miles, as it encompasses congregations from Ironwood: Wesley UMC on the Michigan-Wisconsin border to Central UMC in Sault Ste. Marie across from Ontario to Cheboygan: St. Paul’s UMC just below the Mackinac Bridge at the tip of the Lower Peninsula.
The connectional spirit that is inherent in Methodism, then, is highly valued by this district. According to Harmon, “It’s something that [has] linked our congregations together. . . . Our connectionalism is very much threaded through Camp Michigamme, for our district.”
Moved by New Mission
Camp ministry is always evolving. For Camp Michigamme, the reality is that most of the campers coming to the camp aren’t from United Methodist churches. But this calls for creative solutions. It’s an opportunity to be a light, to testify to the good news found in Jesus Christ.
Because more and more of our congregations do not have children like they once did, the district and the camp are encouraging churches to use scholarships intended for their children to help youth in their community go to camp for a week.
Rev. Scott Harmon tells the story of a congregation in the Northern Skies District that sent eight children to camp last year. But none of them had been active in the life of the congregation prior to that. In his mind, that’s evangelism, that’s reaching out into your community.
Camp director Kelsie Coccia also sees welcoming unchurched families as part of the camp’s mission. “If I only have kids from churches,” she admits, “then we’re not fulfilling our mission of creating disciples, and we’re not fulfilling our mission of sharing our message.”
Rev. Kristi Hintz notes that Camp Michigamme is the only church some children (and even some adults) ever attend. This is a huge outreach opportunity. She also vouches for Kelsie’s care for and commitment to the campers. It’s not unusual to catch her spending the night with campers even though she’s the camp director. There have been times when girls would ask Kelsie to read Bible stories to them again because they enjoyed them and had never heard them before.
Another important part of Camp Michigamme’s mission is its commitment to being a safe space for children. Some children experience bullying at school, and camp seeks to be a place where they can explore who they are and discover that God has created them and that someone cares.
The camp board and staff have been intentional in making the camp safe for all. Rev. Harmon says, “The camp has adopted a statement that all persons are of sacred worth and are welcome and will be included at Camp Michigamme.”
Kelsie echoes this sentiment, too: “Michigamme kids are just nice kids. They are kind and inclusive kids.” She talks about how kids struggle at school to find connection with peers but then often find it at camp. Being at camp together with others creates that sense of community and fun, that wonderful sense of “camp family.”
The centennial celebration concluded after the district conference with a closing presentation by Alan Larsen, who shared some of the camp’s history, including when running water finally came to the camp and when the first outhouses were installed. This was a perfect segue to a call to action from the camp and district. They are launching a campaign to raise money for a new bathhouse, which is sorely needed.
The campaign hopes to raise somewhere between $225,000 and $275,000, and the camp and district are inviting each congregation in the Northern Skies District to have a spaghetti meal fundraiser where all the proceeds will go toward the building of a new bathhouse at the camp. Congregations in other districts are welcome to join. Contact Diana Byer in the district office at [email protected] to get more information.
The long-term viability of camps, including Camp Michigamme, is uncertain, but this centennial celebration was a perfect ode to this beloved camp that has become a sacred place to so many people for so many years.
Michigamme!, Oh, my Michigamme!, Beautiful Retreat.
Where the leaders of the largest district of all Methodism meet.
Here we gather every happy summer, for our worship, work, and play.
Here we dedicate our lives in service to a needy world today.
—Written by the camp’s music director, Mr. Harold Clase, ca. 1924