Part IV: Vandavega Days (1961-2004)

The Catholic order of priests known as the Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception was founded near Skierniewice, Poland by Stanislaus Papczynski in 1673. In the more than three hundred years since their founding, the Marian Fathers have carried out educational, pastoral, and missionary work throughout the world. And for forty-two of those years, from 1961 to 2003, a small band of Latvian Marian Fathers brought their lives and their ministry to the shores of Lake Wandawega, Wisconsin. Sponsored by the Vatican, they came to Wisconsin as refugees from Soviet oppression, in search of a place to live and minister in peace. What they would create and ultimately leave behind was a legacy that still stands today. For it was through the generosity and imagination of the Latvian Marian Fathers that the old Wandawega Hotel and Wandawega Lake Resort property would be transformed into something both revolutionary and remarkably simple: an American summer camp. 

Since their humble beginnings in the seventeenth century, the Marian Fathers have always been a ministry on the move. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the order expanded as far west as Portugal and even into the remote reaches of Siberia. But this growth would not be sustained. Under the severe persecution of Czarist Russia, the Fathers were driven to the brink of extinction. By 1908, only one member of the order remained, and it seemed likely the Marian Fathers were destined to fade quietly into ecclesiastical history. But then, Fr. George Matulaitis-Matulewicz entered the order, rewrote its charter, and took the order’s ministry to Switzerland, far from the oppressive reach of the Czar. From there, the modernized Marian Fathers were revitalized, gaining hundreds of new members, fresh momentum for their work, and renewed influence and growth throughout Europe. With the blessing of Pope Pius X, the Marians were reestablished, once again on the move, leaning optimistically into the new century. 

By the middle of the twentieth century, the Marian Fathers living in Latvia had seen atrocity after atrocity steamroll through their homeland: Soviet aggression; German occupation; Catholics and Jews sent to concentration camps; and hundreds of thousands of Latvian civilians killed, deported, and imprisoned during the World Wars. Under the rule of the post-war USSR, the Marian Fathers were no longer welcome in the Baltic states, and so, along with around 40,000 other Latvians, they immigrated to the United States to start new lives.

When the Catholic Church purchased the Wandawega Lake Resort from the Andrzejewski family in 1961, the property was intended to be a place of retreat for the aging members of the Latvian Marian Fathers now in exile in the United States. The retreat would serve two purposes: While the priests served in their home parishes, such as Our Lady of Aglona near Humboldt Park in Chicago, Wandawega would be a relaxing retreat at their disposal; and if and when the priests ever chose to retire from their home parishes (though none ever did), the property could serve as a group retirement home. 

In 1961, the lakeside property was consecrated and blessed by His Eminence Cardinal Archbishop Meyer of Chicago. The old resort rooms that had for so many years played host to bootleggers, mobsters, prostitutes, and corrupt officials were now the private retreat of holy men. Because there is no “w” sound in the Latvian language, the Marians naturally rechristened their new home “Vandavega”—a name that would, with time, become sacred to an entire generation of Latvian refugees throughout the United States. 

The man who was to become the leader of the new Vandavega retreat was Reverend Boleslavs Baginskis, affectionately known as “Father B.” Reverend Boleslavs was born on January 9, 1918, in Aglona, Latvia, and was later ordained into the priesthood in 1942, despite the growing clouds of the second World War. After leaving Latvia and before coming to Lake Wandawega, Father B. studied in Rome and ministered in Brazil and Chicago. But it was here, on the grounds of Vandavega, that Father B.’s life was to have its most far-reaching impact. 

Within a few years of the Marians’ arrival in Walworth County, the Vandavega property had become a gathering place for other Latvians from around the region, especially during the summer months. Under Father B.’s guidance, Vandavega would come to act as a Latvian cultural center: a place where the traditions of the “old country” could be celebrated properly. Informal summer gatherings were a place where immigrant parents could reunite with old friends and introduce their American-born children to Latvian storytelling, music, food, costume, song, and dance. 

By the end of the 1960s, these informal gatherings began to take on a more formal shape and, before long, strong annual traditions were established. So, what was for most of the year simply the Vandavega retreat center for priests became “Camp Vandavega” from May to September. And while Camp Vandavega was distinctly Latvian, it was also profoundly all-American: summer days filled with swimming, hiking, fishing, arts and crafts, calisthenics, campfires, and a daily flag raising where two national anthems were proudly sung. And it was during these summer gatherings that a young boy named David Hernandez would first come to the shores of Lake Wandawega with his family. 

While the mothers and children were busy with a buoyant tangle of summer camp activities, the Latvian men made significant improvements to the Vandavega property. Along with much-needed routine maintenance, the men improved buildings where they could. They built terraces, tennis and volleyball courts, a barbecue pit, and an outdoor chapel where the Fathers could conduct proper worship services. When not renovating or building new infrastructure, the Latvian men developed a longstanding sports culture around the property, organizing volleyball tournaments amongst themselves and challengers from fellow Baltic-region expatriates. 

The evolution of Vandavega into a cultural gathering place did nothing to lessen the Marian Fathers’ pastoral functions. From 1961 to 2003, Father B. and the other priests would perform countless baptisms, outdoor Mass (the first occurrences of Mass in the Grass), and counsel a whole generation of men and women in need of wisdom and prayer. Every spring, Father B. would walk the length of the grounds, reading from his Bible, sprinkling holy water, blessing the entire property, and praying for those who would visit during the summer. By the mid-1970s the Marians’ Mass in the Grass worship services had opened to the surrounding community, and a beloved Walworth County tradition was born. There, with the summer sky vaulting above, with the whispering leaves for its choir, and beside the holy waters of the glassy lake, worshippers could truly encounter “the God who made the world and all things in it, [who,] since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands” (Acts 17:24). 

For over two decades, a generation of Latvians from Chicago, Milwaukee, and throughout the Midwest spent their summer holidays on the shores of Lake Wandawega, where they gathered to share long days steeped in traditions new and old. But even the golden age of Vandavega was to come to an end. By the late 1980s, the last of the of young men and women who had once been children at Camp Vandavega were off to university, to begin their professional careers, and to grow families of their own. Many of the original Marian Fathers began passing away or moving into assisted living homes. The number of families who made the annual trek to Walworth County began tapering off more and more each year. Formal celebrations and reunions were less frequently scheduled. The Latvian kids grew up. The property’s building and improvement projects slowed and then gradually came to a complete stop. Weeds overtook the gardens and the beach. Roofs began to leak and then started to collapse. Less and less families called Vandavega their summer home. 

Sometime during the 1990s, a grown-up David Hernandez—one of the generation of Latvian-American kids who had spent so many happy summers at Vandavega— told Father Boleslavs that if, some day, the Vandavega property were to ever go up for sale, he would be interested in purchasing it, if only to keep it out of the hands of lakeside developers. It was a nostalgic whim. An outlandish idea. An expensive fancy. What could David possibly do with a faltering, ninety-year-old resort property situated on a lake no one has ever heard of? Certainly it was a place irretrievably past its prime. Everyone agreed, the old magic was gone forever. The golden era of Camp Vandavega was over.

Or was it?