St. Mary of the Hill Parish may exist in the literal shadow of the Basilica and National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians at Holy Hill, but the parish, which is about to celebrate its 99th anniversary, is far from being outshone by its “big sister” up the hill.
In fact, the hundreds of thousands of people who visit Holy Hill each year might be surprised to learn that the Basilica and St. Mary of the Hill enjoy a symbiotic relationship deemed by both communities as crucial to their mutual success.
The Carmelites provide St. Mary of the Hill with a pastor, currently Fr. Jude Peters, O.C.D., and in turn St. Mary of the Hill functions as “the backbone of the volunteer core” at Holy Hill, said Fr. Peters.
“Our parishioners are very devoted to the shrine and Holy Hill,” he said.
The parish’s current building is a multi-use space where Mass is held, with the tabernacle located in a separate room. For other programming, such as a funeral luncheon, the worship space is dismantled and stored away. The parish has utilized this building for decades, but in recent years Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki has asked the community to create its own dedicated worship space — a permanent sanctuary, a traditional tabernacle and a designated baptismal font.
Initially, the option of merging with nearby St. Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Monches was explored — but ultimately rejected overwhelmingly. Not only would such a move mean losing the parish’s individual identity, but it would dismantle the special relationship with the Carmelites and the Basilica that so defines them as a spiritual community.
Simply put, the people of St. Mary of the Hill wanted to stay on the hill.
“We are the servicing parish for the Basilica. Our proximity, right at the base of the hill, lends itself to honoring that reciprocal agreement, where they supply our priest and we supply them the manpower to do all the different things that it takes to run a large basilica,” said Richard Clement, a member of the St. Mary of the Hill Dedicated Worship Space Committee, which has been meeting since 2018.
“It wasn’t that we couldn’t merge. It was that we couldn’t leave this place,” said Pastoral Associate Wendy Newburg.
The parish is now tackling the issue of raising the needed $3.7 million to go forward with construction of a designated worship space. They asked to be included in Wave One of the Love One Another Capital Campaign in 2022, with their own proceeds from the fundraising going toward the building fund — but more money is still needed. St. Mary of the Hill recently held its biggest fundraiser of the year, the Antique and Flea Market, in late July, and its upcoming Anniversary Dinner Auction on Aug. 13 will also benefit their fundraising goal for the worship space.
“We are a small, humble parish, so this is a big ask,” Newburg said. “And since we are connected to Holy Hill, we serve a much wider community.” But the whole parish is united in the effort, she added. Individuals have gone to great lengths to make significant contributions to the fund, and members of the community who are not parishioners have also been generous in prayer and financial support.
“This really wouldn’t be possible without the immense generosity of the wider community,” she said.
Fr. Peters stressed the fiscal conservativeness of the campaign, and said the size and scope of the new church will not be anything to rival Holy Hill.
“We’re not in competition with the Basilica — that’s a beautiful, magnificent church,” Fr. Peters said. “We just want a modest space to worship in.”
St. Mary of the Hill was founded in 1924. Its predecessor, St. Augustine Parish on the corner of Highway 167 and Highway CC, burned to the ground in 1922, and the 16-family community initially worshiped in the Carmelites’ personal chapel and later at the Chapel of St. Therese at Holy Hill before building the current parish center in the 1970s.
The Carmelites have provided pastoral care for the parish since its inception, and in turn, St. Mary of the Hill parishioners are lectors, ushers and volunteers at Holy Hill. Many parishioners are also very involved in the secular Carmelite communities that meet at Holy Hill.
“We have our own identity, but we’re here to help one another in whatever we need,” said Newburg. “If for some reason Fr. Jude can’t make it, another Carmelite will come down and preside at the Mass. We never have to worry.”
“When the Carmelites say, ‘Hey, we need some help with this, that or the other thing,’ there’s never a shortage of volunteers from St. Mary’s to go and help them,” Clement said.
St. Mary of the Hill parishioners make up “the lion’s share” of the volunteer force for Holy Hill’s largest annual fundraiser, the Arts and Crafts Fair, said Fr. Peters. The Arts and Crafts Fair, slated this year for Saturday, Sept. 16, is a perfect example of why the community requires its own worship space — when the approximately 10,000 visitors come to Holy Hill that weekend to peruse the booths of more than 200 juried artists and crafters, St. Mary of the Hill cannot hold Mass, as their multi-use space is needed for storage and medical facilities.
Fr. Peters hopes that, if fundraising progresses, “we will have a groundbreaking sometime in 2024.”
“It’s an exciting time, and everybody in the parish is involved in it, in one way or the other,” he said.
“We have to have a church,” Newburg said. “The whole community is excited to have Jesus front and center. We’re excited to have that sacred space — the space where you feel like you’re in heaven.”