CATHEDRAL DOMAIN — For 100 years, people have been coming to the Cathedral Domain Camp and Conference Center — but you don't get here by accident.
The Episcopal camp in Lee County — its mailing address is in Estill County next door — is reached by way of mountain roads that can be politely described as a test of steering agility and not so politely as the stuff of which motion sickness is made.
But once there, the camp, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, looks as if a divine entity poured a ladle of pure green over 800 Kentucky acres adjoining the Daniel Boone National Forest.
The camp, although open year-round, will shepherd 400-450 campers a summer in its own camps, but also serves reading camps and rental camps, bringing the number closer to 1,000 youth campers a summer. It also serves as a conference and retreat center for the rest of the year.
Director Andy Sigmon, 56, started attending the camp when he was seven years old, about the age of the campers who come skipping down the path after a morning hike on a Monday in June.
He has been at the camp for 22 years, along with his wife, Cindy.
"My best friends in the world to this day are people I met at this camp," Andy Sigmon said.
Chapel built by hand
The centerpiece of Cathedral Domain is the Cathedral Church of Saint George the Martyr, which was built without power tools and dedicated 50 years ago. The interior and exterior walls are western red cedar, the floors oak and the ceiling beams pine. The oak and pine came off the Cathedral Domain property itself.
Although based on designs of wooden cathedrals throughout Europe, including Westminster Abbey, a farmer touring the Cathedral once remarked that it would make a fine tobacco barn.
The chapel, perched on a limestone cliff, is modeled after a 16th-century wooden gothic cathedral in England, Sigmon said. Indoors, it is very quiet — limited electricity is allowed within the building — with an altar at one end and at the other a vast picture window, measuring 20 by 30 feet, opening on a 300-foot drop into the woods.
Like the National Cathedral, the Cathedral has no official membership — all are welcome to attend.
Mark Barnard, an assistant Lexington police chief, said he started coming to the camp while a middle-school student in Mount Sterling. A group of Episcopal women provided a scholarship for him.
Barnard grew so fond of the camp and its message of service that he returned in June as dean of its senior-high camp session.
"I actually see campers' children come through that I went to camp with," Barnard said. "That is really neat. It does recharge me and energize me, and it does give me a lot of hope for our youth."
Through the years
Kevin Richardson, one of the five members of the Backstreet Boys, grew up at the Cathedral Domain when his father, Jerald Richardson, was camp director from 1980 to 1991. In 2000 Richardson held his wedding to wife Kristin at the Domain's "outdoor chapel" and prayer circle.
Richardson brought the other Backstreet Boys to visit Cathedral Domain in 2012 while filming a documentary celebrating the chart-topping group's 20th anniversary, in April, 2013.
Jessica Woods of Versailles has been both a camper and counselor this summer at the Domain. A 2013 graduate of Woodford County High School, she said the experiences complement each other.
"Being a camper you get to experience it, but being a counselor you get to help the campers grow," Woods said. "I help them grow in their spirituality, their love of God."
'A happy camp'
The original land for the Cathedral Domain was assembled by clergyman Alexander Patterson and called "Patterson's Friendly Farm." Patterson was known as the "walking man in the mountains," because he walked extensively to visit his far-flung flock.
In 1946, clergyman William Moody, the third bishop of the diocese, decided that the Patterson land should serve as the site for a new cathedral for the diocese as well as a camp and retreat center. He hired Glenn Adkins, a veteran who wanted to start a camp, as director.
Initially, conditions at the camp were primitive, and campers were regularly blasted with soot from a coal stove — soot which they could not see on their faces, as the camp lacked mirrors.
Moody wrote: "Anyhow, it was a happy camp, and no one who was there will ever forget it, the young people coming back from a 'mud-hike' singing in the rain, or standing outside the kitchen shack shouting, 'Here we are like birds in the wilderness, waiting for our food,' or laughing at each others' sooty faces, or gathered about the campfire looking like refugees from a disaster, waiting to hear one of Glenn Adkins' wonderful improvised fairy stories about the 'Dragon in the Cave,' or 'The Beating Heart,' (actually the pumping of a nearby oil-well which could be heard in the still of the night)."
Although Cathedral Domain is in Lee County, the camp is also associated with Estill County, known as the area where the Bluegrass kisses the mountains. This is literally true: On one side of HWY 52 near the Cathedral Domain you've got the rugged terrain of Floyd County, while the other side looks like the wavy farmland around Lexington.
It's an area removed from modern distractions, and campers are not allowed to bring cellphones, so that they will interact with each other.
Said Andy Sigmon: "The absolute best part of my job is that I get to see the best in the teenagers today. This is sacred space. It's a safe place for them up here."
Nearby camp gets new director
The Cathedral Domain isn't the only mountain religious camp with a 2013 milestone.
J. David Cohn has replaced camp director Lee Padgett at Aldersgate Camp & Retreat Center in Ravenna, close by the Cathedral Domain. Padgett had headed the Aldersgate Camp since 1989.
Aldersgate Camp is affiliated with the Kentucky Methodist church.
Padgett's wife, Debbie Wallace-Padgett, in 2012 was named a Methodist bishop for a district based in Alabama.