Holy Hill is starting to return to its normal state as a destination for pilgrims as pandemic restrictions ease. (Submitted photo)

Pilgrim routes offer a chance to find inner peace, grow closer to God and reconnect with the world, especially in the shadow of COVID-19.

When COVID-19 slammed the brakes on international travel, pilgrimage sites struggled worldwide, but some locations, such as Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, had a record number of visitors.

The world was in lockdown with churches, businesses and schools shuttered, leaving many feeling frightened, discouraged and alone. According to Corrie Campbell, communications director and events coordinator for the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, more than 200,000 pilgrims, more than any other year, visited the Shrine where Mary appeared to Adele Brise in 1859.

“We learned that pilgrims would find a way or make one to get to Mary because she will help them when they ask,” she explained. “So many were called here to Champion during this challenging period when rest and reprieve and reflection were the answers to strife and stress. So many pilgrims started hearing about us for the first time because they started hearing about America’s Marian Apparition and wanted to come to be immersed in the spirituality of this refuge and practice their faith.”

Because the Shrine did not close, they found unique ways to offer the pilgrims meaningful prayer opportunities, such as Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, weekly Eucharistic Rosary processions, monthly Eucharistic healing prayer services, and daily and weekly group rosary prayer.

One of the key differences with regards to attendance was the way visitors arrived.

“The pilgrims were not in large groups on buses; instead, most traveled together by automobile in very small groups and remained socially distant while on-site,” said Campbell. “We really pulled together as a staff and, like Adele Brise and those who gathered here during the Peshtigo fire to pray and were saved 150 years ago, we approached all of our challenges with a firmness and fervor of the faith, committed to keeping a place of peace for those who were gathering to pray fearlessly, working tirelessly, inspired daily by the those all around us who were able to do something many took for granted before COVID — to practice the faith.”

Visits to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good help continue to increase from around the country, and visits from homeschool groups are also growing.

The Shrine is renovating the grounds to accommodate the increase in pilgrims. Some of the upgrades include a renovated Apparition Oratory, consisting of a permanent reliquary, gift shop renovation that provides for more space, and multi-functioning pilgrimage facilities in a more vast prayer hall named Mother of Mercy. The prayer hall allows staff to offer catering and other multifunctional audio/visual amenities for retreats and conferences. They also added a paved rosary prayer walk.

It was a rough year for pilgrims and friars at the Basilica and National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians at Holy Hill in Hubertus, as all the buildings and grounds were closed for two months. The annual Arts and Crafts Fair was canceled, and there was no Christmas concert or Live Nativity.

According to Fr. Mark-Joseph DeVelis, prior and rector, everything was impacted by the shutdowns.

“In addition to all the restrictions on the Liturgy, as a pilgrimage site, one of the more challenging things we had to do was temporarily step back from offering in-person blessings and Confessions,” he said. “We closed the Monastery to protect the pilgrims and Friars. Before the pandemic, we would often have Friars at the desk at the main entrance to bless items, offer car blessings and be available to pilgrims, but we had to suspend that. We had to limit the size of groups coming to visit and stop offering Shrine Talks. Thankfully, now that all the friars have been vaccinated, we are starting to offer those things again.”

Most impacted by the pandemic were the older friars, who were limited in what they could do and who they could see. They struggled with lack of family contact and friendships, explained DeVelis.

“Even the younger friars, who could have had a little more freedom, were pretty conservative with what they did because of all of the community living closely together. Out of a spirit of charity, they were careful not to take risks,” he said, adding, “Definitely the most difficult thing, though, was knowing that the people of God wanted contact and that contact was limited. We knew they were spiritually hungry, and we couldn’t feed them. However, as a contemplative order, it did allow for more focus on our charism of solitude, communal prayer and community life. This was one positive out of negative.”

Financially, the Shrine struggled with a lack of revenue from visitors, and DeVelis said they had to take out loans to cover payroll. Because they didn’t want to let employees go, they applied for and accepted the Paycheck Protection loans, which, DeVelis said, were forgiven. By keeping employees working, it made things go smoother when they reopened.

“We can resume having groups visit and listen to Shrine Talks. We have adoration and confession. The Scenic Tower is open again, as well as the Gift Store and Café. We are seeing many car blessings, and the outdoor stations have large groups praying. School groups are returning,” DeVelis said. “Little by little, we are getting back to being a healthy Shrine. The pilgrims are definitely coming back. The numbers are not consistent yet, but they are rising. There are a lot of factors that affect how many people visit, but signs indicate that we are returning to normal.”

Each community member became more aware of each other’s needs during the difficult months of lockdowns. DeVelis said to carry out the ministry, the friars all got fully vaccinated for the sake of others.

“It also deepened our awareness of being part of a family, and it brought a solidarity with the poor and suffering,” he said. “We would be praying for all the caregivers, the sick and their families. It was one thing we could do; we could pray for them. We used the best tools we had and found ways to let people light candles virtually on our website. A Friar would say a prayer and light the candle in the Shrine Chapel. We still do this today.”

The Holy Hill Book Store

To comply with the State of Wisconsin ordinances and Archdiocesan regulations regarding the pandemic, Holy Hill Gift Store temporarily closed its doors in March 2020. According to Bryan Michaels, communications coordinator, the Carmelite Community at Holy Hill looked for unique ways to stay connected with the thousands of pilgrims who could not come to Holy Hill.

“They found online tools to be particularly helpful,” he said. “One of these tools was launching an e-commerce store that would have many of the same offerings as the popular Holy Hill Gift Store.”

The Holy Hill Online Gift Store opened in May 2020, making some of the store’s most popular items available online. Customers could remain connected with the Shrine by purchasing gift items and having items shipped to them.

“For the first month-and-a-half of the Online Gift Store’s operation, the store manager was the only employee fulfilling and shipping orders,” explained Michaels. “During this time, the Gift Store began offering free curbside pickup in addition to shipping as an option for those nearby.”

The Holy Hill Online Gift Store offers more than 2,000 items and adds additional items often. They offer a large selection of Catholic items and unique souvenirs of Holy Hill. Most items can be shipped anywhere in the contiguous 48 states. They also offer in-store or curbside pickup for online orders.

For more information:

Holy Hill Gift Store