If you’re skipping the elevator and going by foot, the steep ascent to the top of Holy Hill — one of the highest points in southeastern Wisconsin — is something of a physical trial. But, in the same way that a weary soul must be revived by the sight of Heaven, so is a weary body rejuvenated at the sight of the vista from the upper church, where the glory of God is laid bare in the beauty of the rugged glacial landscape that stretches beneath, quite literally, as far as the eye can see.
And, how much more sharp must the relief of that beauty be when the pilgrim has not only climbed to the upper church, but walked for seven miles before even reaching the foothill.
That’s exactly what a group of almost 70 teens from St. Peter Parish in Slinger did in late October, making their way along the Ice Age Trail on a three-hour hike beginning about a block from their church, arriving at Holy Hill for 11 a.m. Mass.
It was the fifth year in a row for the event, which is the parish’s most popular youth retreat opportunity, said St. Peter’s director of youth ministry Eileen Belongea. If the weather cooperates, an additional hike is usually held in the spring.
“We started our first pilgrimage with about 15 youth, middle and high school students,” she said. “Each year, the numbers grow. This year, we had 65 youth and 7 adults.”
The hike is always scheduled for the Friday in October that the Slinger school system is on fall break — this year on Oct. 20, when the group set off at 7:30 a.m. from Pike Lake State Park. The goal is always to arrive by 10:30 a.m. to leave time to clean up in preparation for Mass. The trail is mostly forested, but crosses wetlands, kettles, eskers, moraines and some farmland as well — an “intoxicating and exhilarating” sight with the changing fall colors, said Belongea.
“There is a segment through a grove of trees that are brilliantly yellow from the change of seasons — they make the forest glow in the sunlight,” she said. “There’s another segment through a grove of pine trees where the trail is soft and cushy underfoot with the pine needles that have fallen to the forest floor.”
Along the way, the group’s motto is to “pray with Mary, walk with Jesus.” The rosary is recited for special intentions, and the hikers offer up any physical discomfort of the long walk for those who are in need of prayers.
It was the second year that Abby Gehring participated in the hike. She didn’t find the walk itself too taxing, but “if anything, it helps me to pray more for others, because there are plenty of people who suffer more than me and who can use my help,” she said.
A bus is always on-call in case of emergencies or bad weather, but the long hike to the top of Holy Hill becomes a real pilgrimage that “represents the journey of the Christian life from earth to Heaven,” said Belongea. The day always begins with a discussion of the significance of a pilgrimage, which is often called “a symbol in action” by the Church.
“A pilgrimage is a pursuit and expression of one’s faith,” said Belongea. “People go on pilgrimage to grow in holiness, to grow in their relationship with God, as an act of prayer or sacrifice for a specific need and to discern major decisions in their lives.”
After a morning of walking over glacial terrain, Mass in the upper church — with its sumptuous marble, gold and bronze features, its towering statues and profound sense of piety — takes on a new meaning for the pilgrims.
“It made the Mass feel more special, almost like a big reward after so much effort,” said Gehring. Fellow hiker Faith Riebau agreed. “It was nice to sit down and relax in God’s house. It’s one of the most incredible feelings, because after you walk, you realize how much God has done for you and, after walking in his name, I feel as if his word was more powerful.”
“I do think it does have an effect to how I pray,” said Abby Schmoldt, age 14. “I feel like I’m more open-minded, and I understand the meaning of the words better. It was beautiful, and it was a nice experience to look around at the amazing architecture of the church.”
After “emptying ourselves out on the trail,” said Belongea, the body and soul is hungry to be nourished by the word of the Gospel and the Eucharist.
“The concept of the constant movement of pilgrimage is to exhaust the mind, the body, the will, everything, until nothing is left and you are empty. When we become empty, something will come in to fill the space, and that something is God.”