Camp Bennett is a ministry of Central Union Mission, the oldest homeless shelter in Washington, DC. Established in 1884, Central Union Mission began as an outreach to wayward men, many of them Civil War veterans, on the streets of Washington. Strong church support led the steady growth into the twenty-first century enabling the Mission to purchase and later build increasingly larger facilities.
In 1915, John Bennett arrived as the Mission's first long-term superintendent. In 1917, under his wife Jean, the Children's Emergency Home ministry began. The Mission built large downtown facilities, and revenue and ministry grew even through the Great Depression.
Camp Bennett was opened in 1934 as a place for children to go during the summer and for farming by men out of work. During World War II, the Mission ministered to the thousands of lonely service men and women in the nation's capital.
After the war and deaths of John and Jean Bennett, Rev. and Mrs. Herbert Eberhardt were called to lead the Mission and Children's Home until 1962. The Eberhardts were leaders in the national rescue mission movement and oversaw increased ministry to men, women, children and families and broader use of tools such as the radio.
The tradition of service built by the Bennetts and Eberhardts has been reinforced by their successors with changes in ministry to adapt to the needs of the day while maintaining the core values and services of our founders. Even today, Central Union Mission is still growing. Our seven locations include our new homeless shelter renovated from the historic Gales School at 65 Massachusetts Ave., NW.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt supported Central Union Mission’s children’s programs by helping to helping to pass out Christmas gifts. She began her Christmas Eve day in 1936 and 1938 with Central Union Mission children and other charities, conveying "the President's good wishes," shaking hands with guests and posing for photographs.
To have an impact on local children beyond Christmas, the Women's Guild of Central Union Mission raised funds to purchase a local farm in 193 to be a summer camp for inner-city children. It was named Camp Bennett in honor of John Bennett, Central Union Mission’s first long-term superintendent in 1915 and his wife Jean Bennett, who began the Mission’s Children's Emergency Home ministry in 1917.
In the early 1940s, the Mission asked John Van Deist, Sr., a minister with agriculture experience, to come to Camp Bennett to run the facility. John Van Diest, Jr., reports that his family lived at the house at the end of the road. Short-handed during World War II, Central Union Mission took another place in history by employing German prisoners of war from Camp Frederick, Maryland. The prisoners volunteered to help harvest corn rather than remaining in prison. Mr. Van Diest remembers being warned away from the prisoners, but they “seemed happy to be well treated.” Read more about it here.
Even during World War II Camp Bennett hosted needy children for summer camp. Since then, Camp Bennett has been in continual use for campers and available to the community for local functions.
Today, in the off-season, Camp Bennett houses Central Union Mission’s Spiritual Transformation Program students in the third and last phase of their studies. The country stillness offers time for Bible meditation. The men study math, reading and writing in preparation for new jobs and independent living. They also work hard maintaining the animals and land on the farm.
Central Union Mission served meals to my mother’s family in the late 1930s. This 1935 picture shows my mother, great-grandmother, three aunts and uncle at Camp Bennett. - Judith M. Hurley
Purchased in 1934, Camp Bennett is located on 220 acres of Maryland countryside.