Since my effervescent spouse mentioned returning to Holy Hill recently, I thought the time was right to drag out this old saw of a fable of a story of a legend! So here it is, the raw and unvarnished truth! As opposed to the truth that is cooked and layered with several coats of varnish, I suppose… Anyway, enjoy!
There aren’t many people who get to hit up two different churches in two different places in one day! Well, perhaps aside from busy hearse drivers, but I slightly digress. With that rip-roaring intro, I can tell from how your eyes are glazing over that you would love for me to share my tale of subdued adventure and barely conscious excitement. So, without further ado, let’s go on a church tour!
My lovely bride and I were invited to attend a wedding in a small hamlet called Milwaukee, WI. This admittedly feisty burg is certainly full of drunken charm and has an over .500 professional baseball team. The wedding was going to be at the same church where my wife and I were married nearly fifteen years ago now. That place is certainly filled with great memories and the nostalgia waves were crashing on our memory beaches.
But that’s not the church I’m here to talk about today. After all, I’ve compared the surrounding neighborhood to a hastily arranged demilitarized zone. I’ve never feared leaving my car parked somewhere as much as I did during that trip. While we loved the church, we loved getting out of the neighborhood even more.
Earlier in the day, we had dropped off our three moppets at my grandmother’s house because they would not be coming to the wedding. While the children are annoyingly adorable, they would overpower any wedding guests with their mere presence and moderately violent hijinks. My grandmother, who melts like a Sno-Cone in Phoenix in July when she sees my brood, was jumping up to volunteer to tend to their every need. My wife and I, seeing our opportunity to flee knocking, leapt up to answer that door all the while throwing cheese sticks and How to Train Your Dragon DVDs over our shoulders as we hastily retreated to the car.
After gently peeling out of my grandmother’s driveway, block, subdivision, and county, my wife wondered aloud what we could do with our time. By a predetermined coincidence, it seems that the wedding wouldn’t be starting for several hours, so we had some time to burn. Getting trivial things like winter coats for the kids wouldn’t be the best use of our time, so my wife said that she would like to take some seasonal scenic pictures at Holy Hill. Not willing to mention how overcast, drizzly, and foggy it truly was outside while also looking for any reason to extend my grandmother’s time with the children, I replied, “Well then, let’s go to Holy Hill!”
For those of you who don’t live in the vicinity of Washington County (and I cannot believe you don’t), Holy Hill is a Roman Catholic domicile in The Middle of Nowhere, Wisconsin. The full name of the joint is Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians, at Holy Hill. Yes, it is easy to see why Holy Hill is the preferred title because that is quite a mouthful. Back in 1903, Pope Leo XIII declared, probably in Latin, that Holy Hill would be a shrine. Since then, pilgrims from all over the world together with anyone else with nothing better to do before attending a wedding have come to visit the shrine.
The visitor crowds became so large that in 1906, the Discalced Carmelites of Bavaria were brought in to operate Holy Hill. Yeah, so that tells you just how big the crowds got all right. Yep. A bunch of German guys who lacked calcium caramels had to fight back the teeming hordes! (Okay, fine, I have no idea who they are. I’m too lazy to even click on the Internetwebs to find out what “discalced” even means. And the Microsoft Word synonym function key is worthless in this instance, yet again.)
That nattering being nattered, the actual location of Holy Hill is quite lovely. The view is just spectacular, even amidst the grey and wet weather that welcomed us on that day. Some of the trees were changing color and having a chance to experience this location with my lovely spouse was too good to pass up. Plus, did I mention there were none of our children along? Yep, not a one. (Come to think of it, I did say this earlier, but it just feels good to say it again.)
Going to Holy Hill is a rather odd experience for me. My parents and grandparents were Catholic, so I was baptized Catholic as well. However, as far I know, my parents never attended Mass with me when I was an infant. By the time my brother came along, my folks decided that since they didn’t want to bring us up Catholic, they were going church shopping to find a new place of worship. Seeing as how I didn’t know that much Latin when I was 2 years old and, in fact, know even less now, this was a perceptive move on their part.
Being the studious discerning parents that they were, they closely examined the most vital of guides to determine where their beliefs would lead them. By the “most vital of guides” I mean that they looked at the Milwaukee phone book to find whatever was closest to the house. The nearest church was a Wisconsin Lutheran Synod one, so we became Lutheran. This means that if there was a Hare Krishna establishment a block or two closer to home, my shaved noggin would be sitting in an airport right now, seriously disappointed in how much of an abandoned cliché the Krishnas had become by this point.
So, my wife and I, the good Protestants that we are, decided to jump into the Roman Catholic world at Holy Hill and blend in the best we could. By “my wife and I”, I meant just me because my wife wanted nothing to do with it. She just walked around with quiet respect, not drawing attention to herself. Really, dear? How exactly is that “blending” in?!
In the meantime, I was shouting out “Ava Maria!” and wore a pointy hat. I threatened to write a very strong letter to every single Huguenot that I might cross my path and bellowed in the parking lot that St. Christopher should be on every dashboard. I said that Going My Way was the bestest movie in the world to anyone that wouldn’t listen to me. While I think they bought my cover story, I continued to furiously genuflect all the same. I’m sure that the resulting torn meniscus and severe limp only added to my pietical appearance.
Holy Hill itself is a rather impressive building. It is what one thinks of when trying to describe something as being Gothic. Looking at it yet again, I was awed and taken aback. The building captured my imagination to such an extent that I could clearly picture Jack Nicholson’s Joker falling to his death from it. And you can’t say that about just any edifice.
The place was positively crammed with local youth groups and tents and festoonery for the festival of St. John Bosco. Yes, the St. John Bosco. Now being Lutheran, I’m used to seeing St. Paul or St. Matthew or St. Timothy, but St. John Bosco? How did the originator of George Costanza’s ATM code get canonized? Apparently, the Catholic church will sanctify anyone. And that’s my ticket in! My sainthood goal is to watch The Bells of St. Mary’s continuously for the next 15 years. This should then prove my worth to the Most Reverend Holy Sacred Saint Admittance Committee or whatever they call themselves. (No, there’s no funny acronym involved here. I apologize.)
We approached the cafeteria, where I had a simply lovely patty melt. I was surprised at there being a lunchroom in the first place, but then again, those Decalcified Caramel dudes certainly needed someplace to grab a hot dog after battling back the swarm of worshipers. (Look, I’ve been told by myself on many occasions that my blissful ignorance is rather charming, so please settle down. I’m sure these friars are wonderful guys. After all, look how one of their number treated Robin Hood, so they must be just aces.)
By far the biggest revelation in the whole cafeteria was that a place called Holy Hill would have cherry pie that tasted so sinfully delicious! Is this a trend at Catholic establishments? Gosh, I hope so! Perhaps even the Vatican has some incredible cinnamon sugar funnel cakes!
Aside from the amazing architecture, simply gorgeous stained-glass artwork, and elaborate worship facilities, the one thing that struck me was how many places in Holy Hill were asking for cash. Even lighting a candle carried a four-dollar price tag. Using a match apparently takes more quarters than an hour of Galaga and even then, you don’t even get to keep the candle? Oddly enough, any of the people that I might even be tempted to light this candle for would be yelling at me for not being more prudent with my money. At least there was free drinking water but why they kept it in those marble bowls by the church entrance is beyond me! (In retrospect, that water looked rather sketchy and had an admittedly odd aftertaste. If you go, just bring in your own water!)
Also, what is the deal with all the angry looks the parishioners gave me when I walked off with one of the obviously free crutches that were just left behind? Sheesh, take the one free thing in the entire place and you get glared at like you just walked off with Tiny Tim’s…well…crutch, I guess. The idea!
What would any amazing religious sanctuary be without that holiest of places: the gift shop? Why It would be absolutely nothing! Fortunately, Holy Hill has a great gift shop. After all, as you’ve managed to get all the way up the hill, you might as well take something home to commemorate the event. Crucifixes, rosaries, and holy water are all on sale to assist you in your life of prayer as you destroy some vampires on the side. There are also plenty of books, t-shirts, wall art, pins, buttons, bumper stickers, and some unequivocally delightful chocolate candies called “Indulgences”. (That’s a joke that about seven Lutherans reading this will enjoy. But it’s a good one!)
As a follow-up, whenever a new pope is elected, does the former pope’s merchandise go right to the clearance table? I’m supposing that this happened with every other pope, aside from John Paul II of course as his stuff is always a best-seller. Are there black-market merchandise dealers for the Avignon Popes? Does stuff associated with John Waters accidentally get displayed on occasion because he’s the Pope of Trash and there was a mix-up on the order form?
Our time at Holy Hill was drawing to a close. We did have a wedding to get to and as my wife had the landscape pictures that she was seeking, we departed. As we were leaving, I noticed the large contingent of Hispanic people that were approaching Holy Hill. The sincerity on the faces of the grandmothers and mothers in that group was something to behold. This was true and earnest faith being displayed. Being Lutheran, I don’t necessarily agree with most of what the Catholic Church holds dear, but I can appreciate the majesty of the centuries of Roman Catholic tradition and I can certainly respect the raw belief that I saw in the faces of those ladies.
Now does all the rambling in the paragraphs above necessarily change my outlook the next time I go to Holy Hill, because inevitably there will be a next time? Yes, it most certainly does. I discovered many things and came within inches of some true self-actualizing moments. But above all else, I’ve learned one thing: the Catholics make one hell of a piece of cherry pie. And delicious pie is one thing a Protestant doesn’t protest.