A Grace-filled Success Story: Preserving Legendary Lodge

John Barnes
Director of Development Services
Diocese of Helena

Each camper might answer differently when asked what he or she remembers most about Legendary Lodge, but the disparate memories unite to weave a rich tapestry: The Lodge is a place where our youth deepen their relationship with Christ, grow in fellowship with one another, and experience adventures in an iconic outdoor setting.

Alumni and their families know the pivotal role the Lodge plays in faith formation; they know the legacy because they are part of it. Because of Bishop Thomas’s vision as well as the generosity and hard work of many individuals, that legacy is destined to be part of our future, not just our past.

In 2014, as Bishop Thomas undertook the monumental task of shepherding the diocese through a bankruptcy and financial reorganization, the Lodge faced an uncertain future. It could claim an appraised value of nearly $4 million, but Bishop Thomas understood that its value in the life of our Church was beyond measure.

The dilemma was straightforward but far from simple: Sell the Lodge or find another way to generate several million dollars for other pressing needs. “The quandary literally drove me to my knees in prayer,” Bishop Thomas confides. “On more nights than I can count, I found myself awake at 3:00 a.m., the hour of Our Lady, and so I prayed in earnest for a path forward.”

The events that unfolded between then and now testify to the power of Mary’s intercession and her patronage of our diocese.

To protect Legendary Lodge and ensure its future, Bishop Thomas launched a quiet campaign to raise $3.8 million. Mindful of people’s generosity with their parishes and the Annual Catholic Appeal even in spite of their own financial challenges and economic uncertainties, Bishop Thomas insisted the campaign be a quiet one. The goal was to approach specific individuals with the means to make large gifts.

Fr. Val Zdilla, Pastor at Resurrection Parish, celebrates Mass with campers.

The plan was not without detractors. “Some felt this was a bridge too far, given what the diocese was going through at the time,” recalls Bishop Thomas. “I told them we cannot afford to lose the Lodge, and we moved ahead with trust in God’s providence and faith in our people to make this happen. Legendary Lodge is our memory maker.”

More than 140 donors rose to the challenge, as did the Foundation for the Diocese of Helena and a core group of supporters whose creativity, strategic thinking, and networking abilities formed the backbone of the campaign’s success. The outpouring of generosity was nothing short of miraculous, with gifts as large as $100,000, $250,000, $500,000 and even $1 million. Support came from nearly every community in the diocese, from Lodge alumni, from parents and grandparents of campers, and from others committed to protecting the legacy of a place that has touched the lives of so many.

In February of this year, the campaign to preserve Legendary Lodge met the goal of $3.8 million in gifts and pledges.

For Bishop Thomas, who will soon depart the Diocese of Helena after 14 years at its helm, the campaign’s success is a joyous milestone with providential timing. “As a bishop I go where the Holy Father sends me, but I have prayed that if a new appointment is to come, it not come until sufficient funds are pledged to secure the Lodge’s future. It fills me with joy and gratitude beyond words that the Lord answered my prayers.”

The answers to those prayers came from donors who shared their resources, from supporters who worked to turn ideas into reality, from board members of the Foundation for the Diocese of Helena, and from every person who prayed for success. It is because of them that Legendary Lodge will continue to be a place of renewal and encounter for our youth, and for all who visit.

The diocese is now focusing on long-overdue renovations that will not only expand the summer-camp capacity, but also create more space for retreats and other gatherings. Additionally, we are looking at ways the Lodge facilities might be configured and accessed for potential year-round use.

For Lodge campers, memories made on the shores of Salmon Lake endure long after the experiences that forge them. The positive impacts of those experiences are felt in every parish and community. Working together as a diocese, as the people of God in western Montana, we are committed to building on the recent success and moving ahead to ensure the Lodge’s future is as rich as its past.

Greeting the dawn at the mountaintop cross.