Cold rain driven by a persistent wind pelted the faces of Cheryl Wachtel and her daughter, Kiley, as the pair on Sunday Oct. 20, joined one of several waves of pilgrims ascending Cross Hill, an ancient glacial drumlin, or hill, its crest dwarfing the steeple of nearby St. Martin Catholic Church, Ashford, in southern Fond du Lac County.
The goal of the estimated 300 pilgrims, many religious education students from several local parishes, was a 40-foot-tall wooden cross, overlooking dozens of square miles of Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine.
The purpose of the pilgrimage – to experience a re-enactment of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus, speaking from a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, taught his disciples the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, the Golden Rule and generally what it means to be Christian.
“In today’s society, spending time in faith formation is so important,” said Wachtel, who lives in Slinger. “My husband and I heard about this event and brought our three children. We felt it was a great family event and serves as an example to our children.”
The pilgrims, ranging in age from infant to the elderly who received an ATV ride up Cross Hill’s 50-degree slope, heard Fr. Rick Wendell, pastor at the Tri-Parish Catholic Churches in southwest Dodge County, assume the role of Jesus in delivering Christ’s most famous homily.
“Our Father, who is in Heaven…” Fr. Wendell, dressed in a full-length, black cassock, began, not following the traditional discourse of the Sermon on the Mount.
“The Sermon on the Mount is not just a homily we have in Mass. It’s a time to teach and connect with our faith,” said Fr. Wendell, who did not use a stone altar near the summit of Cross Hill, but elected to walk, as Christ did, among those listening to his sermon.
“I was in the Holy Land in January and visited the place where Jesus actually gave the Sermon on the Mount. It is not a large elevation and is very similar to Cross Hill,” said Fr. Wendell, who noted one intent of the event on the hill was to create an environment and ambience similar to that experienced by Christ’s disciples.
“A lot of parish priests do all they can to bring the life of Jesus and the Gospels alive so people can easily connect with their faith. It’s not just a duty we perform on Sunday,” Fr. Wendell said.
Privately owned Cross Hill has been a site of prayer since the first cross was erected by local pioneers in 1886 as a landmark denoting Ashford’s location as a navigation marker for travelers, said Jacquelyn Haas, director of Christian Education at St. Lawrence Parish, Hartford, who organized the re-enactment.
“Cross Hill was also used for other events, including an annual Mass on the hill. The last Mass was held eight years ago,” Haas said.
At least four crosses have been erected on Cross Hill in the past 127 years, the most recent being in 2010 when lightning struck the existing cross and started it on fire.
Haas first saw Cross Hill three years ago while touring the area enroute to visiting the former Mount Carmel Convent in Mount Calvary.
“I thought it would be a beautiful place to bring Catholics together and share the Good News of Christ,” Haas said.
Joe Fleischman, whose family has belonged to St. Martin since the early days of Ashford and whose family owns the hill, gave Haas permission to hold the reenactment.
“It’s an event where we are jumping into the Bible. I felt the re-enactment was a really powerful way to spread the Gospel and gives students a deeply religious experience,” Haas said. “I wanted our religious education students to encounter Christ and to have the Scripture come alive for them and help place themselves in the reality of Jesus and his ministry.”
Haas hopes to resurrect periodic Masses on Cross Hill.
“I want people to feel closer to Jesus and be his witness in the world. For many years they had Mass on the hill and would draw 5,000 people. If this event moves people and builds a desire for God, maybe we will again have Masses on the hill,” Haas said.