October 2, 2020

New grotto at CYO camp honors Blessed Mother and the life of a child who found joy there

When a new grotto for the Blessed Mother was dedicated at Camp Rancho Framasa on Sept. 22 in honor of the life of Ryan Condon, his parents, Trish, left, and Derry Condon, and his aunt and uncle, Billie and Dr. David Bankoff, posed for a photo on the grounds of the Catholic Youth Organization camp in the archdiocese. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

When a new grotto for the Blessed Mother was dedicated at Camp Rancho Framasa on Sept. 22 in honor of the life of Ryan Condon, his parents, Trish, left, and Derry Condon, and his aunt and uncle, Billie and Dr. David Bankoff, posed for a photo on the grounds of the Catholic Youth Organization camp in the archdiocese. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

BROWN COUNTY—On a sun-splashed September afternoon, it was easy to imagine a small boy running down the hills of Camp Rancho Framasa in Brown County, smiling and laughing all the way during what would be his perfect week at the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) camp in the archdiocese.

For Ryan Condon, his first week at the camp would be so much fun that he never opened his suitcase and just wore the same clothes every day.

“Ryan loved it here,” said his mother, Trish Condon, a touch of wistfulness in her voice. “Great memories. Great place.” Then her eyes focused on the stunning grotto for the Blessed Mother that has recently been completed at the camp—the grotto that was created in honor of Ryan’s too-short life.

“Look at how beautiful this is,” she said. “It’s so serene here, so perfect. It’s like you’re in touch with God. As Catholics, Mary is so important to us. And Ryan loved camp. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

A few minutes later on Sept. 22, Ryan’s parents, siblings, relatives and members of the archdiocese’s CYO staff came together for the dedication of the grotto. As retired Father Stephen Banet blessed the shrine to Mary with holy water, the longtime friend of the Condon family also shared a prayer, capturing the connection between a child of God and the Blessed Mother’s love for all God’s children.

“Father, may your children—especially children and young people who come to CYO camp, and who venerate this image in this shrine of Mary—know her protection and trace in their hearts the pattern of her holiness.

“In honor of Ryan, may everyone who comes here out of devotion take away the gift of joy in their hearts and the rewards of heaven.”

The dedication was one more emotional moment in a day filled with them for Derry Condon, Ryan’s father. During the dedication, he sat with his wife by his side, and their daughter Katie Alkire and their son Courtney Condon close by.

“When I first saw the grotto today, it brought tears to my eyes,” Derry said. “The sun was hitting Mary so perfectly. This setting is perfect.”

So is the short story he shares about the only wish that Ryan had when he returned home from camp that first time.

‘We wanted to do something more’

That day, Ryan looked at his father with great hope as he pleaded, “Dad, can I go back to camp next year?”

That memory always makes Derry smile. At the same time, Ryan’s joy for the camp—and the desire to return to it—has also marked Derry’s life for the past 35 years or so.

During that time, the Indianapolis architect has created and improved many of the facilities at the camp. He constructed a new office building, campfire area and outdoor worship space while also renovating cabins, the chapel and the pavilion. And every time he comes to the camp, he feels a joy and a peace that revive him and remind him of Ryan.

Still, he credits the idea for the grotto to his sister, Billie Bankoff.

After Ryan’s death in 2004 at the age of 31, Billie and her husband, Dr. David Bankoff, started a fund in his honor to help children in need attend the camp. But on the 10th anniversary of Ryan’s death, the Bankoffs decided they also wanted to do something more lasting to celebrate Ryan’s life.

“When there’s a death in the family, everyone wants to do something,” Billie said. “We were so sad. It was so painful.

“We wanted to do something more to help us get through the pain, the grief, the sadness. ‘What would be the one thing that would remind us of Ryan?’ It always came back to something a little more solemn with a permanent structure that not only campers could enjoy, but also staff, parents and alumni.”

A vision to honor the Blessed Mother

When the couple thought of Ryan, they recalled his joy when he came to visit them in their home in South Bend near the University of Notre Dame, where David served as a physician for the football team from 1981 to 2011. They remembered how Ryan loved going to Notre Dame football games.

So that connection to Notre Dame came up in a conversation that the Bankoffs had with the camp’s co-director Kevin Sullivan and Ed Tinder, who was then the executive director of the archdiocese’s CYO.

“Ed mentioned the grotto at Notre Dame,” Billie recalled about that defining moment when the grotto at the camp became a vision. And while the camp’s grotto wouldn’t match Notre Dame’s in size, it would share the same hope.

“We wanted a place where the campers could go if they had a problem, if they were homesick or even if they were feeling good about themselves,” Billie said. “They could visit the grotto and stay there for a while, to pray or just be peaceful.”

In the six years since the vision of a grotto at the camp first became clear, there have been more than a few challenges to its completion, but it has all come together beautifully under the direction of the camp’s recently retired facility manager, Chris Bryan.

“It’s been a long journey and such a labor of love,” Billie said.

Through it all, she has relied upon a touch of wisdom about the Blessed Mother that was shared by the late longtime president of Notre Dame, Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh.

“He said, ‘The help will be there when the time comes. Our Lady never lets a deed done in her honor go unanswered.’ ”

A celebration of life and love

While there has long been a statue of Our Lady on the camp’s grounds, the camp’s co-director Kevin Sullivan says the creation of the grotto adds a more lasting, more beautiful setting that represents the Blessed Mother’s love for her children.

The focal point of the grotto is naturally the statue of Mary, a marble statue from Italy. It’s set against a wall of Brown County stone that is capped with Bedford limestone. Four limestone benches overlook the grotto, inviting anyone who is passing by to rest and pray. The grotto has also been landscaped with 150 ferns.

“I think what could happen here is that the grotto raises the reverence and the sacredness of that space,” Sullivan said. “We have six core values here, and one of them is ‘Catholic.’ This grotto gives us another place for that Catholic identity to come through. The kids will know there is a uniqueness to this camp. This is about having a Catholic experience here.”

The spirituality of the setting also reflects the spirit-filled faithfulness of the extended family of Ryan—a family that has never stopped embracing the gift of his life, Sullivan said.

“What a great, generous family,” Sullivan said. “They’ve always been supportive of whatever else this fund can do to help the camp. With Billie and David, there’s been this total trust with me. It’s been humbling. I’m trying to be a good steward of this. It’s been a wonderful relationship.”

That sentiment was echoed by members of Ryan’s family.

“Getting this done is such a huge accomplishment,” said Dr. Bankoff. “It’s a celebration in a lot of ways—of Ryan’s life, of doing something for the camp, of a lot of people working together for something good.”

It’s a celebration of a life touched by joy, a child’s joy that still echoes through the hearts and minds of those who will always remember him with love.

It’s also a celebration of the love of a mother, whose arms are extended in anticipation of wrapping them around her children.

And on a sun-splashed September afternoon, the memories and the love overflowed at the camp where a small boy once spent a perfect week smiling and laughing. †

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