10402924_10153224513378705_3169014208799071400_n Photo courtesy of Marybeth Sclafani, Staff member at Catholic Familyland. All rights reserved.

Today I would like to share with you about the place I met my husband. It is a place out in the winding back roads of Bloomingdale, Ohio, wedged between two large wooded hills. You will almost miss it if you drive through because from the outside it looks like a sprinkling of office- and warehouse-type buildings sprawled out over a mile of ground. There is a huge white barn and horse pasture at one end and a gated gravel driveway at the other that leads to a hidden park.

But if you stop in the summer during five particular weeks from June to August, you will see brightly colored balloons tied to registration signs along the road. You will see SUVs and fifteen-passenger vans full of families cruising back and forth between what is called the park and the auditorium areas. If you drive up the entrance  shaded by trees, you will find a giant outdoor jungle gym next to a large auditorium backed by a hill that is topped with five-foot-tall Ten Commandments. You will see a outdoor pavilion with camouflage panels draped along the open walls and curly lettered signs welcoming all the thirteen- and fourteen-year-old kids to enter.

You will see a large open field where the children run, play and practice their songs to perform for the parents at the end of the week. You will walk into the auditorium building to find a bookstore filled with Catholic merchandise and resources for families. There is an indoor stage and seating area complete with a sound system and big screens where Mass is said daily every morning and skits, family banner presentations and family prayer hours are displayed at night.

There is a separate area attached to the back of the auditorium complete with twinkle lights, Christian pop music and cushioned step seating where the teens spend their mornings and evenings, listening to talks, praying,  and playing crazy games. This area is called "Marads," which is a word combining the names of three saints who are examples for youth: St. Maria Goretti, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, and St. Dominic Savio.

As you push your way out of the auditorium, you will see "St James Field" with eighty one-room cabins lined up along the trees with a saints name adorning each screen door. You will see hiking trails leading away into a woodsy ravine and crossing a bubbling creek. If you have the stamina to walk those hilly trails in ninety-degree summer heat, you will end up at the other location called Holy Family Park. When you arrive at the park from the hiking trail (or from the road if you prefer driving), the first thing you'll see is a little Adoration chapel with Our Lord present on the altar, welcoming everyone to stop in and pray. Bells ring at 4:45 pm every day, calling families to Benediction, while priests sit along the tree line right in front of the chapel steps, hearing daily confessions.

As you walk further into the park, you will see the pool and the bonfire pit, the Frisbee disk golf course, a shelter that holds toys for tots and foosball/ping pong tables for the teens, the volleyball courts and the water slides, the basketball court and a wide open green where soccer games and Family Olympic events, square dancing nights and ultimate Frisbee games take place. You can grab cheese fries or an ice cream treat at "Momma C's Snack Shack," then wander on down past the picnic table pavilion  to another set of one-room cabins with RV campers, tents and bathhouses sprinkled in between.

As you walk back to the cabins, you will see a white-fenced pony walk and a little brown stable with a herd of twenty or so horses standing quietly along the pasture fence, saddled and ready for trail riders. And this area, somewhere between the saddles and the swinging stable door, is where I met my husband.

He was a Nebraska boy volunteering his summer working as a "service corps" which is a volunteer program for high school students to come and dedicate themselves to a summer of prayer and service. I was working on the horse trail team as a "horse corps" for my regular summer job since my family lived locally. He ended up getting put on horses as one of his main summer jobs and I was one of his "supervisors" even though we were the same age. We were just sixteen.

So we spent the summer together riding through woods, painting signs, putting up fences, brushing, saddling, and watering sweaty horses, walking ponies and children around the pony walk, and helping people on and off the horses for their trail rides. In between all the horse manure and sweaty saddles, we became really good friends. At night, after the trails were over, I would go meet up with him at the "Marads" evening events for the teens and have many wonderful memories of listening to Catholic speakers, dancing Cotton-Eyed Joe line dances and  drinking Cherry Coke with him by my side.

Once the summer was over and he returned back to his hometown in Nebraska, we kept in touch and eventually dated long-distance until I moved out to finish my undergrad at the same college he was attending: University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Now, years later, we are happily married and raising our own little Catholic family, all because of a  certain place that brought us together.

That place is called Catholic Familyland and we (as well as many other couples who have met there) owe our relationship to that place as well as much of our childhood and young adult Catholic formation. Now it's a place that we take our own family every year so that our children can grow up with the same experiences. It's a place of faith, a place of fun, a place of family.

With five week-long sessions called "Family Fests" every summer, Catholic Familyland or Apostolate for Family Consecration (as the organization is formally called) brings families from all over the country together for a faith-filled, fun-filled, camping vacation. You can grow closer to God and to each other as you spend a relaxing week with your family and at least one hundred other families (the attendance per fest session is usually between five hundred and nine hundred people).

During the week, you attend Mass every morning and say a daily rosary and chaplet as well as have the constant opportunity for adoration and confession. In the mornings, after Mass, the kids, teens, young adults, and adults split off to hear talks and do activities with their own age groups. In the afternoons, they can spend time together swimming, hiking, horseback riding, playing games, participating in the different sports tournaments, lounging at their campgrounds or whatever else they may please. After dinner, there is a different family activity planned for each night such as a bonfire rosary and an outdoor dance night followed by  evening programs for the teens and young adults while the parents and younger children are free to visit and play until bedtime. Here is a detailed agenda for what the week's schedule looks like.

If this sounds like something you want to take your family to, either this year or to start planning for next year, here are the links to register and find more information. Registration is still open for the July and August fests this year, so think about it, pray about it, and enjoy!

Copyright 2016 Hannah Christensen.