Holy Hill will be the site of the annual Labor Day pilgrimage for the Slovak Catholic community of Milwaukee. (Submitted photo)

The Slovak Catholic community of Milwaukee will make its annual pilgrimage to the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians at Holy Hill on Labor Day.

The community has been making this pilgrimage for the last 107 years, and while some aspects of it have changed — it’s no longer a several-day affair with pilgrims sleeping on the floor of the lower church, for instance — the essential nature of the event has remained the same. It is an act of devotion, of remembrance and unity. As they follow the statue of the Blessed Virgin up the hill praying the Stations of the Cross, the pilgrims carry with them not just sprigs of rosemary and colorful ribbons: they bear within their hearts a legacy of faith that has endured in the face of Communism, modernism and other threats.

“They are so devoted to this pilgrimage,” said Kathy Bozek, one of the organizers, referring to the Slovak community. “It’s just glorious. It’s so beautiful. The people are so sincere with it.”

“It just makes me feel so different, so peaceful there,” said Betty Valent, who organized the event for more than three decades and continues to participate as a pilgrim. She first attended in 1965, just a few months after she came to the United States from her native Czechoslovakia.

Lynn Staskiewicz has been participating in this pilgrimage since she was in kindergarten. Several years ago, she took over organizing duties from Valent. “We used to make a day of it with my grandma (longtime organizer Mary Juric). We would sleep over at her house, and she would take us all — I have three other cousins — and we always used to carry the ribbons around Mary up the hill for the Stations of the Cross,” recalled Staskiewicz. Her children and extended family members still attend the pilgrimage, which draws about 100 people, she said.

Katie Esterle has been participating in the pilgrimage her entire life. She used to be one of the young girls carrying the Blessed Virgin up the hill wearing “kroje,” the traditional Slovakian costume, and rosemary sprigs, a symbol of purity and remembrance. Now, her daughter does it.

“Even the drive (to Holy Hill) is an opportunity to talk to my kids about what their grandparents and their great grandparents used to do. It causes us to have conversations about the sacrifices our families made to come to the U.S. and even to continue their faith in Slovakia during Communism,” Esterle said.

This year’s pilgrimage will begin at 9:30 a.m. Sept. 4, when pilgrims will gather at the bottom of the hill for the Stations of the Cross. While the Stations are prayed, a statue of the Blessed Virgin and Christ Child is carried on a pedestal and Marian hymns are sung. The Rosary will be prayed at 10:40 a.m., followed by Mass at 11 a.m. Attendees are welcome to bring their own picnic lunch. Non-Slovaks are welcomed and encouraged to attend as well.

The Slovak Catholic community in Milwaukee used to have a spiritual home base at St. Stephen the Martyr Parish on the city’s northwest side, but that parish was eventually merged, and the church building closed and was sold. “We really don’t have a church that we are affiliated with anymore,” said Staskiewicz. “There are some concentrations of Lutheran Slovaks in the Kenosha area, but we (Catholics) essentially don’t have a church that we meet at anymore.” Many community members belong to St. Mary of the Hill, Staskiewicz said; she herself is a member of St. William Parish in Waukesha, and Valent and other Slovaks stayed at Blessed Savior Parish, which was formed from a merger that included one of St. Stephen’s successor parishes.

This makes events like the Holy Hill pilgrimage, where the Slovak Catholic diaspora reconvenes in a celebration of their faith and heritage, more important than ever. The community also gathers for “fasiangy,” their annual pre-Lenten dance, and a summer celebration with Mass at Croatian Park.

Every year in Slovakia, a pilgrimage is dedicated to a feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, taking place as close as possible to the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows (Sept. 16), who is the patroness of Slovakia. Large pilgrimages take place in the city of Šaštín, where a shrine to Our Lady of Sorrows dates to the 16th century. Milwaukee’s Slovak Catholics have always held their pilgrimage on Labor Day weekend, and it previously took place over several days. Pilgrims would meet at St. Stephen’s and be transported to Holy Hill in box trucks furnished by a local Slovakian moving company. The procession was a large, grand affair led by religious brothers and accompanied by Slovak nuns. Mass was in Slovakian and food was prepared outdoors on spits.

“We would rent cots — I think it was a dollar a night — so we would let the older people sleep on the cots, and the rest of us would sleep in the pews of the lower church,” recalled Valent.

Esterle and Laura Ustanovska will take over organizing duties this year from Staskiewicz. As they look to the future, Esterle said she hopes the pilgrimage can continue for many years.

“I just hope to continue the tradition,” she said. “I want to continue what my great-grandparents used to do, and one day we can hand it off to the next generation.”