The buzz the week leading up to Alumni Weekend was just like we remember from when we were campers. There were the phone calls, emails and Facebook messages to old friends asking if they were coming. Last minute calls to the Camp Office asking if there was still room to register. What should I pack? Do I need to bring a sleeping bag if I’m staying in the cabins? Wait, is there heat in the cabins? There was so much anticipation for the weekend, no one wanted to go to sleep the night before Alumni Weekend. We just wanted to come to camp!
The weekend of November 4-6, 2011 was indeed a very special weekend at the Antiochian Village. Coming together with old and new friends and reminiscing about our memories of camp would have been quite enough to make it a full weekend, but there was even more. Alumni Weekend coincided with St. Raphael of Brooklyn’s feast day, so we were able to celebrate the Great Vespers, Matins and Divine Liturgy at St. Ignatius Church, praying at the site of his holy relics. November 5, 2011 marked the 10 year memorial of our first Camp Director, the Rt. Rev. Archmandrite John Namie of blessed memory. Campers and staff that have been influenced by Fr. John’s guidance and love, both directly and indirectly, came together for Alumni Weekend to remember his ministry at the Village, to pray for him, and to still learn from him through videos of him.
The weekend started with an optional trip for those that were able to arrive a day early on Friday morning, November 4, to the Monastery of the Holy Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA, where Fr. John is buried. As our group of 28 Villagers started out in procession to go from the main Monastery building down to the cemetery, Mother Christophora instructed us to sing “Holy God.” We started off strong, but as we processed, our voices got softer. Mother Christophora stopped us and said, “I thought Fr. John taught you to sing better than that.” What she said was true, and it was just as Fr. John would have said himself. As he trained campers and staff in congregational singing, he would keep time with his hand on the chanter’s stand. If our singing wasn’t up to par, he would stop us and make us start over. Fr. John would even chant the words “turn the page” or “sing louder” in the tone of the hymn. When Mother Christophora gently challenged us, the Holy Spirit moved us, memories of Fr. John inspired us, and the Angelic Choir joined in. This time the singing was loud, clear, in tune, included harmony, and was befitting of our purpose at the monastery. We arrived at his grave and prayed the Trisagion prayers, led by Bishop-elect Fr. John Abdalah, Fr. Edward Hughes, and Fr. Joel Gillam. We also prayed at the graves of Kh. Joanne Abdalah and Fr. John Limbeson. Kh. Joanne served our Archdiocese and the Village in many ways, one of which was serving as the first Librarian at the Heritage & Learning Center Library. Mother Christophora and the sisters were most gracious hosts, and prepared lunch for our entire group. We thank them so much for their hospitality!
Our group proceeded back to the Village, about 2 hours away. The first van from the airport had just arrived at camp as well, and cars were starting to fill the parking lot. Though some of us had not seen each other in 5, 10, even 25 years, we all quickly reunited, reminiscing about our days together as campers and staff here on this holy mountain. We began the weekend with Great Vespers for the Feast of St. Raphael. After Vespers, we crossed the field to the new Dining Hall, for “Fr. John’s” pizza which he would always make on the last night of camp before we left. While we didn’t have his famous recipe, it still brought back the memories.
Our main “speaker” for the weekend was Fr. John himself. On Friday evening, we watched a video of a sermon that he gave in 1992, and on Saturday afternoon, we watched an interview he gave to Constantine Nasr in 1998. After each video, Bishop-elect Fr. Anthony Michaels, a former counselor in the early 80’s under Fr. John and member of Kerygma, offered a reflection on Fr. John and the video. Through these videos and Fr. Anthony’s reflections, we were able to remember Fr. John’s words and teachings: how he taught us the faith, corrected us when we were going the wrong way, and loved us no matter where we were in life.
The rest of the weekend was spent in fellowship with each other. On Saturday afternoon, we enjoyed sports on the field just like the old days (well, maybe with a few more injuries and airballs), climbed on the Challenge Course, and enjoyed walking around camp seeing the old buildings that we remember and the new buildings that have been constructed in the past 10 years. Of course, it wouldn’t be camp without a campfire, and we sang our hearts out on Saturday evening. The weekend came to an end on Sunday in the most fitting way, as we gathered one more time in St. Ignatius Church and celebrated Matins and Divine Liturgy lifting up our voices to the glory of God.
We had over 110 Villagers attend the weekend, from all over North America: from California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mexico, Michigan, Montreal, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Toronto, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia. The former campers and staff in attendance also represented all five decades of the Village, from the 70’s to the 2010’s.
The surprise attendee was Armando Narchi from Mexico City. Armando was a camper in the mid-1980’s, and was one of the first campers from the group of campers that used to come from Mexico. He had not been back in over 25 years, but reconnected with some Villagers through Facebook, and came back to the Village to remember Fr. John. We were also very blessed to have with us three former Camp Directors, “Uncle” Paul Finley (1990-1991), Fr. George Alberts (1992), and Fr. Michael Nasser (1997-2006). Some of Fr. John’s relatives, including his two sisters, were with us for the weekend. It was a blessing to have them with us as we remembered our dear Fr. John.
While we can’t mention everyone that came in this article, we do have to mention one more person who we all love so much that was able to be with us for the weekend. Pearl Nahass, who we affectionately refer to as “Aunt Pearl”, was the Camp Nurse from the beginning until the early 1990’s. In the words of Fr. John from the 1998 interview, “without her, there would not have been a camp.” Aunt Pearl was Fr. John’s right hand, and she was an integral part in the development of the program. Aunt Pearl took good care of every camper that came to the Village, and we love her dearly for that. We are so glad she was able to be with us for the weekend, and pray that God strengthens her and grants her many years!
We thank Fr. Anthony Yazge and the Camp Staff, and Uncle Paul Finley and the Heritage & Learning Center Staff for all of their work during Alumni Weekend, and all throughout the year. We can’t wait until the next time we can come home to the Village!