The journey to rebuild a community’s spiritual center

Story & Photography by Maya Fidziukiewicz

The new Camp Vista chapel houses brass time capsules within the concrete, working in the history and the hopes of the community.

“Andrew, come quick. You have a fire at your camp.”

Andrew and Anna Fidziukiewicz are stirred awake, first by a knock on their door from a Fond du Lac County sheriff, then by calls from the police and fire departments.

Their minds race. Maybe it’s the garden shed? Or what if it’s a cabin? There was no one at the camp. Did someone forget to extinguish their campfire? The idea that it was the chapel didn’t occur to them.

Andrew, president of Camp Vista, and his wife, Anna, are trying to collect themselves as they look out their front door, and they are immediately hit with emotion. They see what looks like an enormous forest fire lighting up the 5 a.m. dark October sky. On the other side of the trees is a place they’ve called a backyard for the past 13 years of their lives: Camp Vista.

Camp Vista is a recreational Christian campground located in the heart of Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine Forest near Fond du Lac. It’s a retreat center for many local groups, Boy Scouts, summer camps and family retreats — a place where everyone is welcome, regardless of race or creed. Located at its center is a beautiful chapel where every family or group begins and ends their retreat time there. In its early days, founder Father Joseph A. Fischer received a lot of help from his good friend, legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, to help fund the construction of the camp and the chapel.

Camp Vista’s chapel is a special place. It’s where families spend time together. It’s where kids see trees instead of skyscrapers and paved concrete. It’s where people have a spiritual encounter with God. Many couples met, marriages started and relationships were saved here. It’s a place that fostered hope in many young people, and that has a lot of significance to anyone who stays at the camp.

It’s special to me, too. I’m Andrew and Anna’s oldest child, and my seven siblings and I grew up helping our parents run the programs and maintain the grounds. I don’t know where to begin explaining my involvement with this space — it’s been my life since my family started running summer camps there when I wasn’t even a year old, and then we got more involved as we took over the grounds when I was 8.

I’ve welcomed hundreds of campers at that chapel, shed many tears when I went there with my stresses and shared even more smiles when I met people who would become my best friends.

It goes without saying that this chapel taught me not just about hope, but about life in general. There have been many times I’ve resorted to questioning life circumstances, confused about my place and just had pure uncertainty about my future. I headed to the chapel — the place I knew might not give me answers, but would absolutely give me peace.

Now, when I reflect on my concerns I expressed in the past, I realize they all played out differently than I expected, but they still turned out — somehow. Such is the story of the chapel, too.

It goes without saying that this chapel taught me not just about hope, but about life in general.

The night of the fire, Andrew and Anna’s thoughts continue to race in disbelief. “Do we wake the kids up?” Andrew asks himself, and without thinking twice, he commands my brother, the oldest child there at the time, to wake up the others. Meanwhile, my parents run to their truck and speed over to the camp. Adrenaline works well for a quick wake up.

It’s hard to get anywhere past the entrance of the camp, as dozens of firefighters are already at the scene. They’re all asking for water. As my family rounds the corner, they come face to face with the tragedy before them. What used to be the camp’s beautiful wooden spiritual home was now engulfed in flames.

The flashing fire against the dark sky lights up the tear-filled faces of my family looming helplessly on the sidelines. Firefighters would not let them come near the structure, but the view was clear enough from where they stood. Limp and anguished, they watch the building that cultivated their childhood memories and their faith be devoured in flames and slowly die before their eyes.

“I never cry. But at that moment, I cried,” Andrew says.

I was the first one to leave the nest my freshman year to UW–Madison, and was the only member of my family to experience this day from a distance.

I woke up to a text from my mom about everything that happened, and remember whimpering in my dorm and in my classes as I read article after article that came through my feed.

The next few weeks were filled with grief and consoling the many campers and retreatants who felt the loss as well. A metaphorical darkness came about the camp — every time someone drove past the caution tape section, it felt like a healing wound kept being reopened.

The chapel to Camp Vista could be compared to the Notre Dame of Paris. Believers and nonbelievers alike admired it and participated in services there, and once it was lost it felt like a piece of culture died with it. Nevertheless, Oct. 24, 2018, is a day that the community remembers like it was yesterday.

So many families came up to visit the hole that once held the place they called their second home. Tears were shed and hands were held. All we could do was silently embrace each other because there were no words that could describe our feelings. My family barely had time to process the loss, but we still tried to console others in their grief. Loyal retreatants and musically gifted campers came to sing and to create videos to post as fundraisers, some as soon as the day of the fire.

Coming to Camp

The camp itself is a humble place. Built in the early ’60s by founder Fischer, the camp’s purpose is to be a peaceful setting filled with 250 acres of natural beauty that inspires the mind, rejuvenates the soul, and connects people with God and each other.

Andrew, in addition to his presidential role, is also the constructor, carpenter, maintenance man, program developer and project manager — just to name a few — of the camp grounds. Along with my mom, Anna, and my seven brothers and sisters, we have taken care of Camp Vista since 2008. 

My parents both immigrated to the United States from Poland in the ’80s. When you hear them, their accents give away their Polish identity. Tragedy and loss are not new to an immigrant’s life story. Leaving behind a piece of themselves and everything they’d come to know in their physical homes in Poland was incredibly difficult. America could never supply the roots that their home country established for them, but they came here in search of a better life.

But this time it was different.

This chapel was a symbol of everything they’ve worked toward — you can say it was like their American dream. Losing a place so filled with spirit, memories and hope for the future was a heartbreak they never thought they would experience.

Losing a place so filled with spirit, memories and hope for the future was a heartbreak they never thought they would experience.

Helping Hands

Throughout the next two years, the amount of help we received was incredible. 

Immediately after the fire — within hours of the chapel burning down — Camp Vista already experienced tremendous support from the local community. A friend started a GoFundMe. A group of local 7th graders hosted a bake sale. Local neighbors rolled up their sleeves — and their equipment — to help with the clean up.

“I was surprised by the amount of helping hands,” Andrew says.

This showed Camp Vista, a nonprofit organization, that we had support from those we serve. A morale boost was very much needed because, in addition to planning the construction of a new building that would be suitable for cultivating the faith and values of the next generation, we had to come up with $3.8 million to fund the project.

The groundbreaking ceremony for the building of the chapel happened on March 13, 2020 — the same day the White House declared the coronavirus a national emergency.

While the rest of the world slowed down, construction moved forward on a new chapel. The supplies were preordered and supply chain shortages were avoided. However, with businesses closing down, finding momentum to raise funds proved to be the most difficult task of all.

As a unique aspect to its fundraising, Camp Vista sent out brass vials that served as personal prayer time capsules. Friends of Camp Vista could fill out these time capsules with their family, writing down the deepest hopes and desires for their present and future families. When the foundation was laid, these capsules were placed in the drying concrete and filled in, sealing these intentions in the chapel for generations to come. 

A Chicago community came together to raise money for the chapel through a radio show. Among them was a 7-year-old girl named Stella, a regular visitor at Camp Vista with her family. Stella was too young to remember the old chapel, but old enough to know that this project is important. She brought her piggy bank filled with all the money she raised herself and said she wanted to donate it to the chapel construction. She proudly handed $4.16 to the fundraising director. The studio audience burst into tears and then innocent chuckles — they were happy to know their passion for the project was understood by even the littlest donors.

The fire engulfed not only the chapel, but all of the memories and revelations that happened there.

Community members left white roses at the site of the fire as a memorial to the burned chapel.

Hope in the Process

Throughout the building process, my dad was very involved in the construction of the chapel. He and my brothers would sometimes wake up at 3 a.m. to get a project done before the rest of the team got there. 

My dad also went out of his way to make sure the community was involved in this project. He prioritized getting smaller tradesmen on the job to support local Wisconsin craftsmen.

“Trades on the job were near and dear to the Camp Vista community,” says Jeff Redman, project manager at C.D. Smith, the company that built the main structure of the chapel. “Some craftsmen were too small for us [as contractors] to recommend, but Andrew wanted the community involved.”

Slowly but surely, the construction started looking more and more complete, and we’re growing to love it as much as the old one. 

My dad says he wouldn’t want to go back to what the chapel looked like before — the new one is better in every way he could have imagined. 

My mom is so glad the construction is over because of the stress it placed on our family dynamic. 

The rest of my family also agrees.

“Everyone has their own little chapel in their life,” my dad says, reflecting on the fire and the effort to rebuild. “To them, it’s perfect and they’re very attached to it. But one day they wake up and their chapel is ripped from their life, burned to the ground. That’s where faith and hope come in — proving in a time that great things can come from our darkest moments.”