As dusk fell over St. Joe State Park, Troop 834 sat around a flickering fire. Tired from the day’s activities and stomachs full of s’mores, there was just one more thing to do to close out the day.
“Are there any volunteers to lead the decades of the Rosary tonight?” troop captain Jay Heddell asked. Several hands shot in the air, and they began the Joyful Mysteries to the tune of the late summer cicadas.
The fathers and sons gathered are members of the Troops of Saint George, a Catholic apostolate that “aims to use the outdoors as our canvas and the sacraments as our path to light the way for the formation of holy Catholic men and boys,” according to its mission statement.
The Troops aren’t an outdoor group that happens to be Catholic — “faith is infused into everything we do,” said Pete Lassiter, one of Troop 834’s founders. The August weekend campout also included confession and Mass at the campsite, celebrated by Father Linus Dolce, OSB, and saint stories around the campfire.
Bobby Keppel, a parishioner at St. Joseph in Cottleville, shared the story of U.S.-born St. Katharine Drexel. Telling stories around the fire is a common practice among friends and family, Lassiter said, and “We tell stories about our family in heaven.”
Lassiter and Heddell, parishioners at Immaculate Heart of Mary in New Melle and Epiphany of Our Lord in south St. Louis, respectively, founded Troop 834 in 2015. The troop initially met at Immaculate Heart of Mary but has since moved to the former St. Robert Bellarmine campus in St. Charles, a more central location for families from several different parishes.
Boys in the troop range from ages 6-16 and are grouped together in patrols, loosely by age. Younger boys progress through the St. Matthew angels, St. Mark lions, St. Luke bulls, St. John eagles and St. George dragon slayers. Senior cadets — middle and high school aged — work on achievement courses, which teach skills and topics including first aid, knots, camping, ecology, orienteering, Latin, financial stewardship and public speaking, as well as apologetics, altar service, and the life and dignity of the human person, among others.
Each achievement course is accompanied by a patron saint. While completing the camping achievement, boys learn about St. Paul, a tentmaker by trade. St. Francis of Assisi is paired with the ecology achievement; Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, financial stewardship; Our Lady Undoer of Knots (amusingly) with the course on knots.
This focus on the saints and the virtues they possessed is a key part of the faith formation, Lassiter said. They learn about saints all through the history of the Church, including modern ones like Blessed Carlo Acutis and St. Gianna. “Our faith is alive and dynamic, and that’s what they’re called to as well,” he said.
The troop gathers for a monthly meeting and a monthly outing. Often, it’s a camping trip, but traditions also include a November football game, attending the Advent Novena at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in December and indoor rock climbing in February.
While a few of the fathers hold leadership roles, every father is part of the group, attends meetings and outings with his sons, and is invited to contribute his experience and expertise.
“These dads bring in amazing things that we can teach our kids. We had a dad who had never camped before — and hey, we’ll learn together,” Lassiter said. “We’ll have a meeting where we’re changing tires on cars, but then we’ll have a meeting where we’re talking about contemplative prayer. And that’s the cool balance of what real masculinity is, I guess.”
Although it hasn’t come up in Troop 834 yet, if a boy was interested in joining the Troops of Saint George but didn’t have a father in his life for whatever reason, they would try to find a way to include him with another adult, Lassiter added.
Jordan Steffen, a parishioner at St. Gianna in Wentzville and the troop’s first lieutenant, has been part of the troop with his son, Christian, for about five years. “It’s a special time for us to be able to get out, spend time together, but also for him to be able to see how I interact with other men — good, holy men, who are all striving for Jesus,” he said. “From one year to the next, or from one month to the next, we get to look forward to that, and talk about it, and share that experience.”
The dads are naturally going to have conversations about work, life changes and sports, he said. “But then we can go deeper, and we talk about virtue, we talk about the saints, we pray the Rosary together, we go to Mass together and we have spiritual talks,” he said. “We naturally grow together through sharing experiences, but also challenging each other to be better. And that strengthens the bonds we have with our sons, with each other, and in our family lives. If someone is struggling, we can say, we’re here for you, we’re praying for you, and give him that support.”
Michael Montgomery, a parishioner at St. Peter in St. Charles, got involved with the troop earlier this year. The friendships with other dads have encouraged him to be more of a faith leader in his own family, he said. He also recently chaperoned a group of teenagers at the Steubenville STL Mid-America conference and was inspired by the enthusiasm of the young people. “It’s cool for (my son) to know that even though we are against the world in a lot of ways, you know that there’s a lot of other faithful people around you that you can rely on,” he said.
“When they’re jockeying to see who can serve Mass, you’re on the right track,” said Chuck Mohs, a parishioner at Epiphany of Our Lord.
Will Lassiter, 14, is a senior cadet in Troop 834. “Three or four years ago, I heard about Blessed Carlo Acutis in a story that Mr. Heddell told,” Will said. “I eventually chose him as my confirmation saint. He’s the saint of our times. His story is so beautiful, and it just stuck with me.”
His father deployed with the Army National Guard for a year, and now, he values the time they share even more. “With my father, I’m always able to just be,” Will said. “And he makes me laugh. And just being with him — I know some people don’t get that.”
James Heddell, 13, is also a senior cadet. The annual football game is a highlight for him, along with spending time with his dad and his younger brothers. “I think that praying the Rosary every night is a really good tradition,” he said. “I like that we’re all praying together and sharing with each other, and we take turns leading the decades.”
The senior cadets take on some small leadership roles, like leading games at campouts. Recently, James gave a talk about poison ivy, and Will and his younger brother Jack taught the troop about venomous snakes. “I look forward to every time we go,” James said. “I know that I’m going to have fun every time.”
Tommy Caskey, 11, enjoys the chance to learn new things, “like how to make a fire, or how to use a pocket knife, or how to cook things,” he said. “I got to watch Mr. Lassiter make cobbler.”
The world has a lot of mixed-up messages about what it means to be a man, Pete Lassiter said, but through the Troops of Saint George, the men and boys are working together to different aspirations.
“Here, it’s: Think of St. Joseph,” he said. “Jesus’ hidden years were at the elbow of St. Joseph. That’s what we get to do, too.”
>> Troops of Saint George
The Troops of Saint George was founded in 2013 and now has chartered troops throughout the United States and Vancouver, Canada, according to its website. The organization’s motto is “Parati Semper,” or “prepared always,” referring to 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.”
For more information on the Troops of Saint George, including troop locations around the St. Louis area, visit troopsofstgeorge.org.