Explore spiritual renewal and art treasures at Wisconsin’s Holy Hill

Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary
Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians, sitting atop Holy Hill, seems to float above the surrounding land.
There are sacred places in the world which attract the worshipful and the curious. Among them is El Santuario de Chimayó north of Santa Fe, Our Lady of Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico City, and the Grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes, France.

There is another in Wisconsin, about 40 miles northwest of Milwaukee. This is the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians, the third church built atop Holy Hill, the highest point in what is called the Kettle Moraine created during the last ice age.

People, it seems, have always considered high places sacred. Holy Hill is no exception. Like Chimayó, the faithful have come to pray for healing and have left behind crutches that now line the walls of the Shrine Chapel with its sculpture of Our Lady of Holy Hill, carved in Munich in 1876. The friars who serve the church have never proclaimed a miraculous healing. None has ever been witnessed by clergy or laity. Only the left-behind crutches have been found.

Whether or not you’re religious, you would agree Holy Hill has a distinctive place in nature. When the Wisconsin Glacial Period ended about 15,000 years ago, retreating ice left kettles, depressions — some ponds — formed from melting ice, and ridge-like moraines shaped by sediments piling up ahead of once-growing glaciers. The hill on which the church was built is nearly 300 feet above the surrounding land. It’s 825 feet above Lake Michigan and 1400 feet above sea level. In an otherwise flat terrain, that alone would make is special. The technical term for the hill is Moulin kame, formed when silt, sand, gravel, and large boulders were deposited by melting water flowing down the sides of ice sheets. The resulting deposit has a distinctive cone shape, adding to its dramatic appearance.

But Holy Hill is also a place of silence, a quietude broken only by the sounds of birds and squirrels going about their business. It is a place of tranquility, where one can meditate and renew spirit.

Early settlers found the hill beautiful, evoking memories of sacred places in their homelands. In 1855, Fr. Francis Paulhuber of Salzburg, Austria, purchased the hill for $50. Three years later, Roman Goetz, a local resident, constructed a 15-foot-tall wooden cross from a tree that had grown at the foot of the hill. The cross mounted on the hilltop is still part of the church today.

The first shrine was a tiny log chapel, built in 1863. Inside the 16-foot-square building, in a corner, were crutches left by people who believed they’d been cured through prayer.

In 1879, Fr. Ferdinand Raess submitted a proposal to the archbishop of Milwaukee for a new church. This second church, a 76-by-46-foot structure, was dedicated in 1881.

The first priests asked to serve at Holy Hill were Capuchin Franciscans, but the archdiocese — at the recommendation of their Provincial — instead invited the Discalced Carmelites from Bavaria, who arrived in 1906. “Discalced” is a Latin term meaning barefoot. The friars wear sandals instead of shoes. (I once asked one of the brothers what he did during Wisconsin’s winter. He said, “I wear socks with my sandals.”)

The Carmelites have a long history with the Catholic church. A group of hermits on Mount Carmel were united under a Rule given in 1209 by St. Albert, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, during the Crusades. Their “mission” is to give themselves to constant prayer in solitude and silent reflection on the Word of God. Holy Hill has proved to be the perfect setting for these friars and nuns.

altar at Holy Hill
Besides its sacred function, altar at Holy Hill is a composite of architectural and art treasures.
The basilica was begun in 1926 and completed in 1931. It’s an example of neo-Romanesque architecture with rounded arches, large stained-glass windows, and soaring Gothic towers. In one of its twin towers are three bells. The other is called the scenic tower. Visitors can climb 178 steps to reach its 192-foot height and enjoy the stunning view of the countryside.

The nave inside the 168-foot-long church has a terrazzo floor, hand-carved oak pews, and handwrought iron and bronze metalwork, including the ornate altar rail with two Latin texts incorporated. Columns along the side aisles have four heads carved in their capitals. Their faces exhibit happy, aggressive, sad, and phlegmatic expressions.

The main altar, crafted from Botticino marble, weighs 40 tons and took two years to construct. On the altar is a hand-hammered, 500-pound bronze tabernacle, and the panel beneath the altar table has a bas relief of a fountain with seven streams flowing from it, symbols of Christ. The back wall of the altar is sculptured in Tavernelle marble.

A 30-foot-high Cordova stone arch, intricately carved in a endlessly interwoven design, surmounts the altar. The arch is supported by four pillars of Verona marble. Their crowns have six-winged symbols of the four evangelists — angel (Matthew), lion (Mark), ox (Luke), and eagle (John) — a reminder from the Book that Isaiah Christianity is built on the foundation of Judaism.

Within the 17-foot-wide arch is a mosaic of 90,000 pieces. Assembled in Germany, it’s called The Court of Heaven and represents the Trinity, Mary and Joseph, and the 12 apostles.

Along the length of each side of the nave, tall, stained-glass windows not only illuminate the church but visitors as well, each telling a Bible story. The rose window at the front of the church has a central, stained-glass window of Mary and 12 smaller, round windows, all of which cast jewel-like hues across the nave at sunset.

Holy Hill was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. Wisconsin’s governor named it a historic landmark and architectural masterpiece in 1998, and Pope Benedict XVI declared it a minor basilica in 2006.

Whether you visit Holy Hill for religious conviction or just to explore its architectural and art treasures hidden “in plain sight” on top of the hill, you’ll not be disappointed.