Holy Hill (elevation: 1,300 ft), located 30 miles northwest of Milwaukee amid breathtaking scenery, is a historic sacred site and a registered national landmark. The shrine atop Holy Hill, the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians, is run by Discalced Carmelite friars and attracts more than 300,000 pilgrims and visitors each year.
History of Holy Hill Basilica
The Shrine's history begins with a French-native hermit named Francois Soubrio, who took up residence on the isolated hill in the mid-19th century. Discovered by a local farmer around 1862, Soubrio was at first regarded with suspicion by the locals. Soon, however, suspicion was replaced by respect and a friendship developed. The farmers began to provide the hermit with food and eventually built him a small cabin.
Why did Francois Soubrio come to live an austere life on Holy Hill? There are two different accounts, both written towards the end of the 1800s. According to W.A. Armstrong, Soubrio came to do penance for the murder of someone he loved and was cured of partial paralysis after spending a night in prayer on Holy Hill. The other account, by J.M. LeCount, simply describes Soubrio as a religious eccentric.
Whatever led him to take up residence there, we do know the Frenchman learned about the hill through an old diary. Working as an assistant to a retired professor in Quebec, Canada, Soubrio found an old French diary and map (dated 1676) showing a cone-shaped mountain in Wisconsin. The diary's author described his journey to the hill's summit where he erected a stone altar, raised a cross and dedicated the place in the name of Mary as holy ground.
The account in the diary corresponds with Jesuit missionary work in the area between 1673 and 1679, and local Indian folklore still spoke of a black-robed chief who wore a crucifix and rosary at his belt. For many years, it was believed that this missionary who first consecrated Holy Hill was Fr. Marquette, but it is now known that he did not come this far in his mission to the area.
The Holy Hill area was first settled around 1842 by Irish natives, who named the settlement Erin Township in honor of their homeland. The Irish dedicated the hill to the Virgin Mary and were the first to call it "Holy Hill." But with a few decades, they fell on hard times and were forced to leave the area; in 1854, settlers from Germany began buying the small Irish farms. The names given during the 1960's to the picturesque country roads in the area - Donegal, Waterford, Shamrock Lane, and Emerald Drive - reflect the area's Irish heritage.
Holy Hill was for a time known as "Government Hill" for surveying work that was done there. It remained government property until 1855, when the 40 acres atop Holy Hill was purchased by Fr. Paulhuber, a native of Salzburg, Austria. Gazing upon the hill, Fr. Paulhuber is said to have declared:
In June 1858, an oak cross made from a tree growing on Holy Hill was erected and consecreated on top of the hill. The cross, which can be seen today in the Marian Hallway of the Shrine, originally stood 15 feet high and is engraved with the German words, Ich Bin das Leben wer an mich glaubt wird selig, "I am the life, who believes in Me shall be saved."
The first shrine on Holy Hill was dedicated by Fr. George Strickner on May 24, 1863. The simple log chapel was named the Shrine of Mary - Help of Christians. Simple wooden Stations of the Cross were set up alongside a newly-graded road up the hill in 1875. In the winter of 1879, Fr. Raess summitted a proposal to Archbishop Henni for a new shrine at Holy Hill; construction began in the spring.
Pilgrims flocked to the shrine on Holy Hill, and by the end of the 19th century it was felt that the important shrine should come under the administration of a religious order. The Shrine of Mary was put under the care of a group of Discalced Carmelites, who came to Holy Hill from Bavaria at the invitation of Archbishop Messmer on June 26, 1906.
The Carmelites (officially the Brothers of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel) have been dedicated to Mary since their founding in 1226. The Discalced ("Barefoot") Carmelites are a distinctive branch that derives from a reformation of the order under St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross in the 16th century.
In 1920, the building now known as the Old Monastery Inn and Retreat Center was completed. It was remodeled into a retreat center in 1955.
In 1925, the Shrine of Mary was razed to the ground to be replaced by a third, larger shrine. On August 22, 1926, the cornerstone of the present shrine was placed by Archbishop Sepastian G. Messmer. Written in Latin, the inscription translates, "Because of the increased numbers of those honoring the helper, the Blessed Virgin Mary, I am already the cornerstone of the third temple on the summit of this mount. In the year of Our Lord 1926." The church was completed and consecrated in 1931.
Various renovations and expansions were made throughout the 20th century to better accommodate pilgrims, visitors, and those on private retreat.
What to See at Holy Hill Basilica
Holy Hill is the highest peak of the Kettle Moraine, a chain of hills and pot shaped valleys that begins in the Whitewater area and extends northeast to Door County. The shrine itself sits on about 40 acres, but over the years the friars have acquired an additional 400 acres of surrounding woodland to preserve the area's contemplative atmosphere.
There is much to see and do on Holy Hill for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Visitors can tour the shrine chapel and the grounds, attend daily services, climb an observation deck and, during the summer, eat at the Monastery Inn Cafeteria. There are daily devotions at the shrine and weekend Masses, and confession is available. Many families come to Holy Hill to attend Sunday services, then have a picnic on the beautiful grounds.
The Neo-Romanesque shrine chapel dominates Holy Hill. Above the entrance to the upper church are two 8-foot marble statues, added in 1956. The statue of St. Mary Help of Christians is on the left, and the statue of St. Joseph, protector of the order, is on the right.
Inside the upper church, St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross, founders of the Discalced Carmelites, are depicted in mosaics. Teresa is shown with the child Jesus, which commemorates an experience Teresa had of being interrupted by a little boy while at prayer in the courtyard of her cloister. The child asked, "Who are you?" She answered, "I am Teresa of Jesus, and who are you?" The child replied, "I am Jesus of Teresa" and disappeared.
Greek wrought-iron letters are set into the ceiling lamps of the upper church, spelling out the word hodegetria. Hod means "way" and egetria refers to a feminine leader or guide. Thus the reference is to Mary, guide of the Way to Christ.
From June through October, Holy Hill operates the Old Monastery Inn Cafeteria, a journey back in time featuring excellent desserts.
There's also a large gift store at the base of the hill, offering everything from religious items to Holy Hill shot glasses. (The gift store is online, too.)
Quick Facts on Holy Hill Basilica
|Names:||Basilica of Holy Hill · Holy Hill Basilica|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||43.244355° N, 88.327712° W|
|Address:||1525 Carmel Road|
Gift shop: 262-628-4735
|Hours:||Church, shrine and grounds: Daily 5am-5pm|
Scenic tower: May 1-Oct 31 Monâ€“Sat 9am-4:45 pm, Sun 1:30-4:45 pm
|Lodging:||View hotels near Holy Hill Basilica|
- Holy Hill (official website)
- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - "Day Trips: Holy Hill" - a motorcycle trip up to Holy Hill
- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - "Holy Hill shrine may earn basilica designation" (May 28, 2005)
- OnMilwaukee.com - "Holy Hill makes for festive day trip in winter or summer" (January 2, 2001)
- Photos of Holy Hill Basilica - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Holy Hill Basilica, Hubertus
Below is a location map and aerial view of Holy Hill Basilica. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.