Bronze dust covers the hands of Cody Joseph Swanson, a sculptor who resides in Italy, as he grinds unwanted material from an 80-pound bronze panel depicting the Annunciation.
Resting against a nearby work bench, an equally large, but finished panel highlights a cross of highly polished bronze projecting from the hands of St. John of the Cross, co-founder, along with St. Teresa of Avila, of the Discalced Carmelites.
The panels are among six featuring bronze relief sculptures to grace a pair of 1,400-pound bronze doors recently installed at the entrance to the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians at Holy Hill near Hubertus.
Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki will bless the doors during a special 4:30 p.m. Mass on Saturday recognizing the 150th anniversary of Holy Hill, a destination over the years for millions of pilgrims from around the world.
“The intention of these doors is to thank our Lord, to glorify him and to bring the faithful closer to Christ,” Swanson said late last week while overseeing finishing work on the sculptures at Vanguard Sculpture Services, a Milwaukee bronze foundry that cast the door panels.
Since 2000, major improvements made
The Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians at Holy Hill will celebrate the 150th anniversary of its founding with a Mass on Saturday, May 25, at 4:30 p.m.
Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee will be principal celebrant, with the Discalced Carmelite priests of Holy Hill concelebrating. Archbishop Listecki will also re-dedicate the shrine chapel.
Installation of the bronze doors, four in all including two slightly smaller ones to replace rosewood doors prematurely decayed by exposure to the elements, is the latest in an ongoing series of major improvements at Holy Hill since 2000.
The improvements are intended to maximize the Holy Hill experience for pilgrims, said Carmelite Fr. Don Brick, the shrine’s rector.
“People are able to leave their world, come here and speak to God. Holy Hill really leads people toward a deeper encounter with God,” Fr. Brick said. “We are a Marian shrine and being a shrine of Mary means assisting people in their faith, guiding them during their pilgrimage of faith.”
“The 150th anniversary fits in beautifully with the ‘Year of Faith’ because we are talking about a pilgrimage of faith for every individual who comes here,” Fr. Brick said.
Pope Benedict XVI, who promulgated the Year of Faith, designated Holy Hill as a minor basilica, similar to the basilica of the grotto and Lourdes. In 2012 the Vatican established a bond between Holy Hill and the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. That means Holy Hill visitors receive the same benefits as visiting St. Mary Major.
Sits on sacred ground
But long before Holy Hill became a shrine and pilgrimage site, the cone-shaped hill was held to be sacred ground “even for the Indians because it was the high point,” Fr. Brick said.
“People would come here because it was the highest point around, but it wasn’t a place of pilgrimage,” Fr. Brick said.
Jesuit missionaries who frequently planted crosses on high hills mapped what was to become known as Holy Hill.
According to history, one of the maps found its way into the hands of a Frenchman living in Canada, Francois Soubrio, who traveled to Wisconsin and lived the life of a hermit on the hill.
Soubrio was known as the Hermit of Holy Hill, becoming more of a folklore legend than anything, according to Fr. Brick.
“The Hermit of Holy Hill was written about in history, but there is not any corroborating history to tie him here. No documents point to the Hermit of Holy Hill,” he said.
But the name caught on and people called it Hermit’s Hill although Catholics called it St. Mary’s Hill.
Irish dubbed it ‘Holy Hill’
History records the Irish, who settled in the Holy Hill area in the 1840s, referring to the hill informally as Holy Hill.
Holy Hill was known as Government Hill in 1855 when a local priest, Fr. Francis Xavier Paulhuber, bought the 40 acres from the U.S. government.
“Fr. Paulhuber said at the time he felt the hill would become a pilgrimage site for tens of thousands of people. That’s when Holy Hill really became significant for pilgrimages,” Fr. Brick said.
The first official reference to Holy Hill came on May 24, 1863 when, according to shrine history, Fr. George Strickner dedicated a small chapel he ordered built on the hill’s summit.
Fr. Strickner “preached the first sermon from the Shrine of St. Mary – Help of Christians to about 1,500 persons. In the sermon, Fr. Strickner used the name Holy Hill formally for the first time,” according to a history of the shrine compiled by the Discalced Carmelites.
Carmelites take over in 1906
The Discalced Carmelite friars, known as discalced or barefoot because they wore only sandals, were selected by Milwaukee Archbishop Sebastian F. Messmer in 1906 to take over operation of the growing shrine from diocesan priests.
Construction began on the first stone church in 1880 when the hill’s peak, already lowered several feet to make a flat surface for the initial log church, was lowered another 20 feet to accommodate the new shrine.
The current church, constructed between 1925 and 1931, required Holy Hill be lowered another 80 feet, meaning the existing hill is about 100 feet lower than the days when Jesuit missionaries made note of its presence.
When the existing church was finished it rose 250 feet above the countryside.
Shrine fell into disrepair
A severely leaking roof, falling bricks from the shrine’s 192-foot towers and other physical issues prompted a $7 million renovation beginning in 2000, said Carmelite Fr. Cyril Guise, former prior and shrine director at Holy Hill.
“The church was really going downhill fast,” said Fr. Guise, who was charged with overseeing the massive project.
The church’s asbestos shingle roof was replaced with slate from Vermont. Stained glass windows were covered with protective glass.
Solid bronze ceiling light fixtures, estimated to cost $1.5 million to replace, were taken down and polished.
“Everything was taken out of the church and cleaned,” Fr. Guise said. “People asked, ‘Are you going to change things?’ I told them no. I don’t believe you can take an old church like this and put contemporary ideas inside of it. It doesn’t work.”
‘More beautiful’ than in 1931
Conrad Schmitt Studios of New Berlin, whose craftsmen have worked on Holy Hill since the 1920s, painted and decorated the sanctuary, much of it in faux marble.
The only significant marble is in the 40-ton altar, Fr. Guise said.
“I felt elated,” Fr. Guise said of the renovation completion in 2006. “In some ways, the church is more beautiful than it was in 1931.”
Installation of the bronze doors, designed by architect Duncan G. Stroik with a project cost of more than $300,000, is the latest major improvement at Holy Hill.
“Those doors will outlast the building,” Fr. Guise said.
Swanson, who brought an arrow cast in bronze from Italy as part of a panel based on a 17th century sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini depicting the “Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” of Avila, said the doors are designed “to lead you into the basilica in preparation to be in the presence of our Lord and the Eucharist.”
“Hopefully, people who see the doors will be inspired, emboldened, enlivened or even rekindled about their faith,” said Swanson. “It’s all very humbling. I’m very blessed to be called to do this.”
Fr. Brick said visitors to Holy Hill should leave “with a better hope God is still very much present in their lives.”
The number of pilgrims visiting Holy Hill, currently estimated at more than 300,000 annually, is steadily increasing, Fr. Brick said.
“We offer confession every day of the year,” Fr. Brick said. “Not many places do that anymore. So many people come to Holy Hill to avail themselves of the sacraments. People are trying to discover a deeper meaning in life, a reality and closeness with God.”