As a young child growing up in Dillon, Francis “Frank” Hursey was secluded from much of the world beyond the borders of his small town.
That changed when he attended Camp St. Mary for two summers.
The camp for Catholic children was run by the Diocese of Charleston on land along the Okatie River near Bluffton from 1931 to 1967. Conditions were spartan — two simple barracks for sleeping, a dining hall and kitchen, a convent for nuns who staffed the camp, and a simple chapel. For recreation, there was swimming, fishing, crabbing and baseball.
There was also plenty of catechesis. Campers were immersed in instruction about their faith from the moment they arrived.
“That camp taught me there was life outside of Dillon, because I really hadn’t been out of the county limits until then,” Hursey said in a recent interview from his Connecticut home. “I wanted others to be able to get the kind of lessons Camp St. Mary taught me.”
After moving to Connecticut later in his youth, Hursey earned degrees in mechanical engineering and business management. He enjoyed a varied career, including a stint working with NASA to help perfect breathing systems for astronauts on the Apollo space program. He also worked with air systems and invented medical devices, including one that extracts pure oxygen from air to use in treating soldiers on the battlefield.
In recent years, he and his wife entertained the idea of purchasing the old Camp St. Mary and opening it again. That wasn’t possible, but he found another way to honor the memory of the camp he loved as a child — by building a community retreat and educational center in Africa.
A few years ago, Hursey met Father Richard P. Okiria, a priest from Uganda who serves in the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn.
Father Okiria comes from the Soroti district in eastern Uganda, an area torn by years of civil war and unrest.
He knows the strife firsthand. Early in his priesthood, he said he and his brother were ambushed by anti-government rebels and his brother was killed.
Father Okiria persevered in his ministry and received permission in 2001 to study at Yale Divinity School in Connecticut. He eventually became a U.S. citizen and now is administrator at St. Clare Church in East Haven and St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Branford, Conn.
Throughout his time in the U.S., Father Okiria has continued to help people in his home country. He works with donors to fund deep-water wells for towns without running water and has helped women’s groups and others obtain micro loans to start businesses.
He said one of his biggest goals was to give people in Soroti a place where they could go for peace and spiritual renewal, and also learn how to start their own businesses.
“I realized it was important to help people … understand business and economics,” he said. “It made no sense to help people get a loan for a business if they did not first understand how to run a business. I wanted to help people learn a livelihood that could last.”
When Father Okiria and Hursey met, it was a providential way for both men to realize their dreams, including passing along the message of self-sufficiency and hope from Hursey’s days at Camp St. Mary.
Funded by donations from the Hursey family, the Hursey Resort at Camp St. Mary was recently completed in Soroti. It includes a 16-bed main house that can be used for retreats and other gatherings, a conference hall, kitchen, and dining space for 40.
On five acres of land adjacent to the main property, Father Okiria said there is space for vegetable gardens, pastures for cows and goats, and space for fruit tree orchards and fish ponds. The goal is to use the property to train local residents in agriculture, fishing, animal husbandry and other skills they can use to become economically independent.
“My dream to keep the message of Camp St. Mary going has come true and will go on for generations,” Hursey said. “We’re going to teach people how to run a business, and instill in children the idea they can do anything they want with an education. That was what Camp St. Mary taught me all those years ago.”
Featured photo provided: The Hursey Resort at Camp St. Mary is a community and retreat center in eastern Uganda that includes a 16-bed facility, conference hall, kitchen, and dining space, plus farmland and pastures.