Restoring Glory to a Faded Shrine

By Peter Maller
Published in "Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel" News from Ozaukee and Washington Counties

Erin – Nothing in the stillness of this muggy summer day suggests the punishing windows known to batter Holy Hill National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians, a Roman Catholic spiritual site that draws 300,000 visitors annually to the highest peak in southeast Wisconsin.

Damage from snow, rain and blistering heat have taken their toll on the shrine’s church, an architectural masterpiece perched more than 1,300 feet above sea level. 

Storms blew roof tiles from the building, causing leaks that sent ceiling plaster crashing to the pews below.  Dripping water streaked the walls.  Freezing and thawing turned brick mortar into dust.

Structural engineers saw early signs of wall failure. 

It got to the point where we couldn’t put Band-Aids on it anymore,” said Father Cyril Guise, the shrine’s director.  “We had to bite the bullet and go for the whole job.  We have to preserve the shrine for the people we serve.” 

A $5.7 million restoration project was the only way to save the building, said Guise, whose religious order, Discalced Carmelite Friars, has been caring for Holy Hill for 97 years. 

After raising $3.5 million to complete the exterior repairs, he is trying to raise another $2.2 million to restore and redecorate the interior.  Guise hopes to have the massive project finished in time to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Carmelites’ arrival at the shrine in 1906. 

We would like work to begin in October if there are sufficient funds,” he said.  “We don’t want to go too deeply in debt.” 

But soliciting donations is a worldly chore that Guise prefers to avoid. 

We’ve been surviving on the generosity of people who come here and put money into the collection baskets,” he said.  “It takes a lot of nickels and dimes to make $5.7 million.”

For the first time since arriving in Wisconsin from Bavaria, the Carmelites launched a formal fund-raising campaign, Guise said.  Two $100,000 gifts from area families and several contributions from foundations have helped immensely, Guise said.

‘A little Baghdad’

But the most likely donors, Holy Hill’s visitors, tend to be people of modest means, Guise said. 

Recently, we had 1,000 Iraqi pilgrims from Chicago camping in the fields for a weekend,” he said.  “It looked like a little Baghdad.” 

Carmelites have had strong ties to Christians of Middle Eastern origin for at least eight centuries.  The religious order was founded in Israel on the rugged terrain of Mt. Carmel near present-day Haifa.

Holy Hill regularly receives visitors from Egypt, Hungary, Mexico, the Philippines and other less prosperous nations.  Pilgrims are drawn to Holy Hill by word of mouth, Guise said.  They come to pray and to take in the shrine’s natural, park-like atmosphere.

Some visitors arrive seeking miraculous cures for chronic illnesses.

Discarded crutches and canes line a wall in an alcove in the main sanctuary, displayed as testaments to Holy Hill’s healing powers.

Riding the elevator to the chapel, Hoda Baumgartner, an immigrant from Lebanon who now lives in Chicago, talked about her annual pilgrimage to the shrine.  Growing up in the Middle East, her Catholic family visited holy sites throughout the region on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

A couple of years ago I didn’t come.  I had to work that weekend,” Baumgartner said.  “Then I fell, and I broke my leg in five places from the knee down.  Last year, I said, ‘God, wait for me.  I’ll be there.’”

Situated on 400 acres of rolling forests and meadows, Holy Hill resembles a cloistered village dotted with red brick buildings connected by winding paths. 

The compound, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, includes a monastery, guest house, restaurant and gift shop.  An observation tower, in one of the church’s three spires, offers visitors views of lush, rolling hills sprinkled with farms.

Downtown Milwaukee, about 35 miles south, can be seen in the distance.

Many visitors also come to attend daily and Sunday Masses.  Scheduled confessions are conducted Monday through Saturday.  Confessions also are offered upon request throughout the day. 

Holy Hill’s reputation as a spiritual site started spreading in the mid-1800s, according to a brief history detailed on its Web site,

That’s when area farmers discovered Francois Soubrio, a French immigrant living at the summit.  Soubrio, a hermit, had supposedly been healed of a partial paralysis after spending a night praying there.  Church historians have uncovered differing stories offering insights into Soubrio’s life.

According to one account on the site, he “came to the hill in penance for the murder of someone he loved.”

Another account seemed to dismiss him as just “a religious eccentric.”

But both accounts agree, however, that he was “a man of great inner pain who sought comfort in God.”

The site reports that Soubrio was drawn to Holy Hill after discovering a parchment map made in 1676.  In a diary accompanying the map, the map-maker wrote that he had erected a cross and stone altar at the site and dedicated it as a holy place in the name of the Virgin Mary.

According to a booklet about the church, Irish settlers, who were among the first Europeans to arrive in Erin, dubbed the area Holy Hill.  The first chapel, a small log building, was completed in 1863.  It was replaced by a brick church in 1879.

Shaped by familiar hands

Guise said work on the current church, which seats 800 worshippers, was completed in 1931.  The sanctuary’s stained glass windows and decorating was done by Conrad Schmitt Studios, of New Berlin, the same company that Guise picked for the restoration project.  The latest job will be supervised by Richard Statz and Bernard E. Gruenke, whose 90-year old father, Bernard O. Gruenke, helped Frank Larscheid, a Schmitt Studio’s artist, build the church’s stained glass windows in 1936.  The elder Gruenke purchased the studio in 1953. 

Schmitt Studios is known in Milwaukee for restoring the Pabst Theatre and also throughout the nation for decorating such landmarks as the White House Visitors Center in Washington, D.C., and the University of Notre Dame’s main building in South Bend, Ind.  About 80% of the studio’s work is done for churches, according to Patty Zimmerman, the company’s publicist.

Holy Hill’s new decorative motif was influenced by Romanesque-style churches in Germany, Statz said.  The color scheme and decorative features were picked to accentuate the building’s architectural design features, he said. 

Bernard O. Gruenke, who still works at the studio, has helped plan Holy Hill’s new look.  “I admire the Carmelites so much,” he said.  “We have a strong connection.”

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