They literally come from around the world to make their pilgrimages.

Amidst the splendid natural beauty and rolling, wooded hills of Wisconsin’s fabled Kettle Moraine forests, the visitors make their way to one hill in particular, the highest elevation in the entire state. They come to pray and worship at the Basilica and National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians at Holy Hill.

Fixing their eyes on the Basilica’s majestic twin steeples, which are clearly visible for miles in any direction, many visitors actually miss the smaller worship facility at the base of the hill. They barely notice the modest building and may not even realize it’s a church.

Fr. Keith Bonaventure Lussier was one of those visitors about 30 years ago. As he would later discover, the building is actually St. Mary of the Hill Catholic Church, a parish that traces its roots all the way back to its first log chapel built in 1846. He also could never have guessed that one day he would come to be its pastor.

“It’s purposely kept not looking like a church because we don’t want to have a competition with the Shrine or give the impression that this is the Shrine,” Fr. Lussier said. “It’s pretty obvious that it’s not (the Shrine) but we’ve purposely kept it very low key and we’re just happy to be here.”

There are also differences in the Mass experience between the Basilica and St. Mary of the Hill.

“If go to the Hill, you have highly formal Masses, basilica-style Masses with organ and choir singing and you have the formal genuflecting, kneeling, etc.,” said Fr. Lussier. “This building here and our worship space are more informal. There are no kneelers because there is no room. It’s basically chairs, more low-key and a more fellowship-type atmosphere. We offer donuts and coffee after each Mass and people congregate in that area. We’ve tried to bring about a family spirit and, because our family is split between the Shrine and here, it’s very important that those who come here are able to do that.”

Low-key. Laid back. Almost hiding in the shadows of a national landmark. But once you set foot inside, you come to realize there is much more than meets the eye, something Fr. Lussier experienced in July 2017, when he was asked to serve as pastor.

“I was surprised at how big the building actually was and it hit me right away when I got inside,” said Fr. Lussier. “The other thing was that I know the relationship between the (Holy Hill) Shrine and the parish because I was here in the 1980s and I knew the pastors. I just thought, ‘Well, this is going to be exciting.’ It’s a very different from what I experienced when I was a diocesan priest in a parish.”

St. Mary of the Hill lists 453 families among its members. (Photo by Tom Andrews)

This parish actually began in 1846 as St. Augustine’s when a log chapel was built in honor of the saint near the spot where the St. Augustine cemetery remains in use today. Several years later, the chapel was ravaged by fire and was replaced by a stone structure which stood proudly at the corner of what is today Highway 167 and St. Augustine Road. During the 1800s, the group of mostly German immigrants who attended the church grew into a tightly-knit parish. By the early 1900s, the parish counted 80 families in its membership, and soon Irish immigrants joined the growing faith community.

A second disastrous fire erupted in 1922 when, according to news accounts, a single charcoal ember wasn’t extinguished following a service. The church was gutted and in the months after the blaze, church members were invited to worship at Holy Hill, which was staffed by the Discalced Carmelite Friars. Parishioners were unable to replace St. Augustine’s as the $5,000 insurance proceeds were inadequate.

Thus, a new church was built at the base of Holy Hill and on Sept. 22, 1924, St. Mary of the Hill Parish was dedicated by Archbishop Sebastian Messmer. Although some families at the time decided to attend either St. Mary’s Church in Richfield or St. Hubert’s in Hubertus, a strong core of more than 50 families took Archbishop Messmer’s advice and made St. Mary of the Hill their new home. Masses and church services were held in a small chapel, which served as a temporary church. Once the Holy Hill Shrine was completed, parishioners joined pilgrims in worshipping there. In 1971, the new parish center was dedicated and has since served as the worship site for St. Mary of the Hill. A new addition in 2004 provided additional office space, classroom space and restrooms for those with disabilities.

Through all of these changes and difficulties, a strong familial spirit lives on in the church today.

“The familial spirit and the cooperation between the Shrine and the parish are very obvious,” said Fr. Lussier. “You especially see that at the Arts and Crafts Fair because we invited them to have the event on the grounds here because the parish owns this property. They were having it in the fields and, when it would rain, it became an impossibility. So we have it here so that’s no longer a problem.

“We list 453 families and about 20-25 percent of the parishioners attend Mass regularly up on the hill and we have another 25 percent who go back and forth because we do the Eucharistic ministry, lecturing to help out the Shrine. Another 30 percent or so come down here for Mass at the parish center.”

Tammy Streitmatter and her husband brought their children to St. Mary for the first time 14 years ago. The closeness and family togetherness struck her from the very start.

“When we first came here, we were told about the parish but we kept going up to the Hill and missed it, much like many people,” said Streitmatter. “We discovered immediately that it’s a family. That’s what the church is, a family of believers. Whether you worship here or up on the Hill, people care about one another. It’s a wonderful, loving community that supports one another, works hard and loves Our Lord. Because they love Our Lord, they love everyone around them.”

The familial atmosphere plus the opportunity to work closely with the Carmelites so captivated Streitmatter that for the past 12 years, she has served as the parish education director. That has spawned so many real life opportunities to love and serve others while growing in personal faith in the process.

“We’re very blessed that we have the Basilica and we have the Carmelites,” Streitmatter explained. “The Carmelites have supplied us with this parish since it came into existence. We have this wonderful symbiotic relationship with the Hill.”

Continuing and building on this familial spirit is as much the mission of this church as it was in the very beginning.

“I’d like everyone to know about the love the people have for each other and the real family spirit and even the desire on the part of the staff to do everything to build the family spirit,” said Fr. Lussier.