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Joan C. Camp Auditorium: 'Labor of love and commitment'

Cary Ashby • Jan 28, 2020 at 9:29 AM

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series about the St. Paul Convocation Center, which celebrates its 25th anniversary Thursday.

Adding the Joan C. Camp Auditorium to the St. Paul Convocation Center was a game-changer for the school’s fine arts program.

“It made all the difference in the world. It was extremely important,” said Juli Burt, who taught band, choir and general music for 35 years before her 2011 retirement. “It’s a great gathering space for the entire school.”

Part of the initial plans was building an auditorium as a second phase of the project.

“It seemed like we couldn’t raise the money at the time,” said Sue Lesch, who then was the director of the Firelands Catholic Education Development Office. “I think what happened here was people said, ‘What about the fine arts? Let’s do something for that.’ I think people thought, ‘Sure, that would be a great idea, but let’s not bite off more than we can chew.’”

During the planning stages, Burt was approached about her preference of an auditorium or a new band room.

“I’d rather have an auditorium than a band room because it would work for the entire community,” she said.

 

Honoring Joan C. Camp 

In 1995, long-time elementary school secretary Joan C. Camp died after a car crash on U.S. 20 in Lorain County.

“She had been hospitalized for a while and then she passed,” said Lesch, now the Norwalk Catholic School (NCS) chief advancement officer.

Following Camp’s tragic death, there was an energy around the school from “people who wanted (to find) a way to honor her,” she added. Lesch said Camp’s family also wanted to do something for her and when school officials realized it was less expensive to incorporate an auditorium into the convocation center than building it separately, the Joan C. Camp Auditorium became a reality.

“I think it has offered up a lot of opportunities for a lot of different things,” Burt said.

Not only did the auditorium “pull the community together,” its construction sent message that “it supports the arts,” she added.

 

Versatile usage

The auditorium has hosted musicals, Safety Town and kindergarten graduations, overflow for Easter Masses at St. Paul Catholic Church, speakers, coach’s clinics, Academic Challenge competitions, movies, band rehearsals and more.

“It’s definitely allowed us to expand our arts,” said Martin Linder, a 1999 St. Paul graduate and now the NCS president.

Singer-songwriter Sarah Hart led a workshop for area church musicians in the Joan C. Camp Auditorium in February 2019. She earned a Grammy nomination for Best Gospel Song for Amy Grant’s 2010 recording of her song “Better Than a Hallejuah.”

Before the auditorium was built, performances were held in the Monroe Street Gym.

“There was a stage in there, but (the) acoustics were bad and it didn’t hold enough people,” Lesch said.

As the auditorium was being built, residents paid to have their names placed on seats.

“We had artisans step up to do that beautiful wood working that you see in there. It was really handcrafted by Tom Hug and Charlie Roth and local artisans. … It was a labor of love and a labor of commitment,” Lesch said. “The acoustics in there are just wonderful.”

 

Showcasing musicals

“Guys & Dolls” was the first musical performed in the auditorium in 1997.

“Before the auditorium, there was no musical,” Linder said. “It was just awesome to have the confidence to go out there and put on a product for family and friends in the community in your own school.”

Linder was a cast member in “Anything Goes,” the second musical performed in the Joan C. Camp Auditorium.

“It was a lot of fun. I remember the camaraderie with all the different students (who) were in that,” said Linder, who did several “bit parts.” “It was great because I got to interact with different kids than I wouldn’t have necessarily interacted with.”

When Linder taught kindergarten at the school for three years, the auditorium hosted kindergarten graduations. Camp’s daughter, Diane Hammersmith, also taught kindergarten.

“She is very proud of that — as is the whole family,” Linder said.

 

Historical moments

The St. Paul Convocation Center was dedicated Dec. 16, 1994. Linder called it a “premier event for the arts and for athletics that really put us on the map.”

Linder was a St. Mary Elementary School student during the earlier groundbreaking ceremony and Mass. 

“They bused all of us over from St. Mary’s at 77 State St. over here. We had a big Mass in the parking lot,” he said. “At the time, it seemed like the most people I’d ever seen in my life — the biggest Mass I’d ever been a part of.”

Remembering the signs people held, Linder called it a “very powerful” experience.

As a fifth- or sixth-grade student, he didn’t know the amount of people who were involved in the making the building a reality.

“But I definitely felt the gravity of that historical moment,” Linder said.

Lesch offered a perspective on the legacy of the Joan C. Camp Auditorium. She said it represents the “generosity of the people who were so happy to have a way to honor Joan and all she had done for the school.”