For a few years during college, I worked at a summer camp on a campus outside Boston. It was a wonderful experience, but an intensive one, in part because I didn’t have a car.

If I wanted to get away on my day off, my options were largely limited to lying in an un-air-conditioned dorm room and listening to my tiny desk fan do what it could to dispel a humid Massachusetts summer.

Sundays, though, were different. Early on, someone in the camp leadership had sidled up to me and said they’d heard I was Catholic. I nodded slowly; there weren’t many Catholics at this camp, and I wasn’t sure why they were asking. So far, the only skills the job had demanded of me were returning from field trips with precisely as many middle-schoolers as I’d left with, and making sure that no one had gotten too terribly sunburned in the interim. I’d had a 100-percent success rate with the former and was running about 50/50 with the latter. That was apparently enough to qualify me for the next request.

“There’s a student,” I was told quietly, “who wants to go to a Mass.”

At first I worried that they wanted me to say the Mass, but no, the matter had been looked into, and a Catholic church had been identified nearby. If I were willing to chaperone, they’d give me the keys to one of the camp vehicles. Deal.

I had one condition, though—I wanted to make a general announcement every Saturday that anyone who wanted to was welcome to join us the following morning (early the following morning, to accommodate the camp’s highly regimented schedule). The camp directors agreed, though skeptically. This one student was interested in Mass because her parents had called and said it was obligatory. What other camper would go willingly—especially at dawn on a Sunday?

Very few, it turned out. After a startling introduction the day before as the moderator of the “Catholic Club” (the what?), I made my announcement, got two takers, and was given the keys to the car—a massive, ancient Chevy station wagon, with a school bus placard haphazardly affixed to its roof. A switch beneath the dash controlled the requisite “stop lights,” which a camper riding with me switched on and off delightedly, causing surrounding traffic to screech to an infuriated halt.

We headed to the nearby parish identified as our “best bet”: word was, the Masses were quick and the place was air-conditioned. It was also carpeted, small, and—judging from the way the people in the pews dressed, and from the way they looked at how we were dressed (T-shirts, sunburns, hair that hadn’t seen a scolding parent’s comb in weeks)—a rather wealthy, reserved parish. We drew a lot of stares, and on the way back to camp, the kids commented on it. I said I’d look into alternatives, and the next week I took them somewhere new.

Actually, the “new” church was very old. There was no air conditioning and anyone who wanted to be heard—the priest, the lectors, the choir, the congregation—had to compete with the aircraft-quality standing fans that ran up and down the outer aisles. As a result, just about everyone was red-faced and T-shirted—just like my crew. Indeed, no one stared or glared at us. The priest even smiled. And, then, egged on by the fans, our arrival, or, more likely, because this is how it went every Sunday, he gave one of the most wonderful, full-throated homilies I’d ever heard.

He ran long, though, and as I saw the sweat trickle down the sunburned cheeks and necks of my charges, I thought: Catholic Club’s going to be a bit leaner next week. But no. We grew. No miracles occurred—I eventually filled all the seats in the station wagon, even the flip-down ones in back and the one beside me up front, but never more than that. I don’t know whether the club actually captured the entire Catholic population of the camp, or if some opted for a morning of water balloons and lanyards instead.

It was a good club. We didn’t have officers or secret handshakes or uniforms. We never kicked anyone out. We met only once a week and we had our own car. Twenty years on, I wonder where those kids are. If they have kids of their own. What they do on Sundays. Whether, after all this time, they’re still in the club.

Published in the 2010-08-13 issue: 

Liam Callanan is the author of the novels The Cloud Atlas and All Saints. His new short story collection, Listen, will soon be published by Four Way Books.

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