Father Don Cowie, S.M., will again be celebrating mass with Hill Country campers and staff Sunday, as he has been doing each summer for about 40 years.
When Si and I arrived at Stewart in 1967, the Catholics were loaded on the vintage yellow bus and driven into Kerrville each Sunday morning for mass, as were the campers at many of the other camps. That was not a good situation for many reasons. I do not remember the details of how we were fortunate enough – and when I say we, I am referring to many of the Hill Country camps – to have Father Don Cowie agree to celebrate mass at each camp on Saturday night or Sunday, but I THINK the late Frank Harrison, manager at Camp Mystic, arranged for Father Cowie to travel to us (Frank’s late brother had been a priest).
Father Cowie, who at that time was based in St Louis, spent each summer at Tecaboca (Texas Catholic Boys Camp), a Marianist Retreat Center in Mountain Home, agreed to celebrate mass while he was in Texas.
For several years, Stewart sent a counselor to Tecaboca to pick up Father Cowie and return him to Stewart in time for 8 a.m. mass. It was a 45-minute drive each way, so Si would have the assigned staff member come wake him up at 6 a.m. –no later than 6:15 a.m. – so he would know they would be on time. Then, they were to bring Father Don to Kathy’s Kastle where Si would have fresh-squeezed orange juice waiting. After mass at Stewart, we would either deliver him to Camp Waldemar or they would pick him up. He would then go to Heart O’ the Hills, then Rio Vista, and Rio Vista would return him back to Tecaboca in Mountain Home.
Heaven help the assigned staff member who overslept (and it happened far too often as Saturday nights can be late nights and alarm clocks failed), as Si’s wrath over throwing off Father Cowie’s (and all the other camps’) schedule was fearsome (to me and to the counselor in question).
Within the last 20 years Father Cowie was reassigned to Central Catholic High School in San Antonio, where he still teaches, plus he was assigned one of the diocese’s vehicles for his time at Tecaboca, which eliminated reliance on sleepy-headed counselors.
The fresh-squeezed orange juice tradition with Si continued until Si’s death, albeit Si was no longer squeezing it.
After Si’s death, Mike Busby (who had made many a trip to pick up Father Don in the early days) took it upon himself to be near the gate to greet Father Cowie each Sunday morning and then bring him to The Ark for the traditional fresh orange juice that I now squeeze. Mike makes sure Father Don stays on schedule and that we don’t visit too long!
Father Cowie will be 87 years young in July, and he is still driving back and forth from San Antonio and celebrating mass at six Hill Country camps. (He does Mystic and Honey Creek on Saturday evening).
In the last few years he has suffered health challenges, including prostate cancer and heart blockage, but he continues to work hard, smile and give 100% of himself to those he serves. Two years ago doctors strongly suggested he stop climbing atop cabins to re-roof them, but he still helped construct a cabin which the camp community funded as a special retreat spot for him.
As Father’s Day nears, I think of how Father Cowie has been praying for the campers, staffs and camps for many years, and I would like to turn the tables, asking Heart parents to pray for his health as he is slated for upcoming medical tests, and to pray for him to be able to continue the wonderful example of ministering ‘to the least of these’ that he has exemplified for almost all of my 50 summers here.
Ed. Note: 1967 was the first summer Si Ragsdale Jr, Jane’s dad, and I were at Stewart-50 summers ago, and it was Si’s passion for camping that sparked Jane’s passion and love of camp. Jane and Juli attended Heart before we had the opportunity to begin purchasing it from the Hawkins family. Si’s temper over preventable happening was legend: wreck a car & he didn’t bat an eye, but don’t be late -! Mike Busby, who is Stewart’s associate director, worked at both Heart and Stewart in the early days of the Ragsdale-Moore ownership. The history of the two entities has been intertwined since their founding by E.J. “Doc” Stewart in 1924 and 1928. The Ark is the home Si and I built in 1999 and where I continue to enjoy living. Kathy Ragsdale
Father Don is an amazing person and one of the role models that sparked my strong faith life as a Catholic. As a camper, I remember the wonderful Masses he celebrated at opening ceremonies as being particularly special because the homilies spoke directly to us, with the message being so clear and relatable that I could think about it all week, and then just having Mass outside. That alone was a memorable experience. As a counselor I was one assigned to drive Father Don to Rio Vista. It was in that experience of driving Father Don, the conversations we had about camp, and the blessings that surround us in the hill country, that I believe as the moment when I really did begin to see God all around me, especially at camp. I am thrilled and amazed that my daughter is going to be attending a Mass celebrated by such a remarkable priest in such a remarkable place. Happy Birthday Father Don! You are such a blessing to us all!
Jennifer, your memories are what make Father Don so special and meaningful to us all! Thank you for sharing.
Kathy – I remembered reading this and have come back to them today. Such a lovely tribute to a man who gave everything and asked nothing in return. Many Sundays I drove Father Don back to Tecaboca after mass at Rio Vista, some days just chatting about ordinary things, other days our conversations were more involved and his words have stayed with me throughout these 30 years both at camp and the years following when I would return to visit. Those words gave me the strength and courage to face my challenges, his words of peace and kindness taught me humility and to help others face their own challenges. Father Don is now at peace in his life, I am heartbroken, but will continue to live by his words, by God’s words.