Visiting the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians at Holy Hill (or, just “Holy Hill” to my family) has been a tradition in my family for as long as I can remember.
Ever since I was little, I remember my parents, aunt, uncle, and cousins piling into our cars, usually with a lot of baon (food or snacks for a journey), for a two and a half hour drive up to Hubertus, Wisconsin at least once a year. The occasion always varied — sometimes, it was just to visit. Other times, it was to participate in a Stations of the Cross service at Lent. Today, my parents and I drove up in light of my upcoming semester abroad in Scotland.
There’s something beautiful about traditions. My parents and I don’t really have many of them, so it’s especially meaningful that Holy Hill continues to be a part of our lives — even despite my growing relationship with God outside of Catholicism. (I still don’t know where I stand with regards to a label on my faith life. But that’s a whole other can of worms.) As we got out of the car in the parking lot at the base of the hill, I couldn’t help but notice immediately that it smelled the same as always. Nature and incense. The scent brought a sense of familiarity and nostalgia. I could still clearly remember the nauseating drives up as a child, weaving in and out of the hilly Wisconsin countryside, and the excitement — and relief — when my parents or I would finally yell, “There it is!” as the signature steeples popped up among the trees in the distance. We used to compete over who could spot them first. Today, it was a little different: my mother let me sit in the front seat — a trick we recently discovered that relieves my motion sickness — and we missed the initial sight of Holy Hill towering above the surrounding forest thanks to being in a compact car as opposed to our old and massive Yukon. Still, that didn’t take away from the tradition of visiting. I was thrilled to be there. It’s absolutely gorgeous.
Of the many times we’ve visited Holy Hill throughout my life, I think this was our first time visiting on a Sunday. Like I wrote earlier, we’d only ever visit either arbitrarily to spend time in one or two of their chapels or shrines or to explore the grounds during a Stations of the Cross service. This time, we got to enjoy a Mass. The Mass itself felt like any other — the only thing that was different was the very beautiful venue. I guess that’s a perk of Catholicism: You get a consistency of tradition and message each week no matter where you go. This week, we just got to celebrate Mass in a beautiful and historic basilica as opposed to our local church. But the aesthetics of our location came with a price: because the interior was entirely stone, the acoustics were terrible — I could hear children wailing in the back, their cries echoing to the front where my parents and I sat. And, despite sitting in the front, the sound system had the priest and readers’ voices bouncing off the walls left and right. And, on top of it all, we were sandwiched between two pews of unruly families: a little girl in front of me would not stop playing with her hands, and — can you even believe this — the woman behind us answered her phone during Mass. Oh, my dad and I were furious. We drove two and a half hours for this?!
I found myself distracted and disengaged during Mass. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what today’s readings were. This was probably due to a mixture of explanations: One, the conditions of where we sat. Two, where I am in my faith journey. Three, the stress of my summer catching up to me. As thrilled as I was to be at Holy Hill celebrating a family tradition, my mind was elsewhere, and I was incredibly frustrated with myself. After all, this was a once-in-a-year (if that) occasion, and this one was particularly important given that we journeyed to Holy Hill in order to pray for my safe semester abroad. But perhaps this is where I tell myself that I don’t need a fancy venue or special surroundings in order to maintain my relationship with God.
Still, we made the most of our visit. We visited the Shrine of Our Lady, Help of Christians. I remember always being fascinated by this shrine as a child. Just like the rest of Holy Hill, it was beautiful, complete with stained glass illustrations of the Hail, Holy Queen prayer. This was where people lit candles and wrote down their prayer intentions. As a child, I’d write on the prayer intention slips as if they were diary pages. I sometimes wonder how much of my answered prayers I could attribute today to the prayer team at Holy Hill. The power of prayer is incredible, after all. As I wrote down my prayer intentions and slipped it into the basket, I wondered where my past prayer intentions were and who ended up reading them. And I wondered what other prayer intentions mine landed among.
After writing down my prayer intentions for my trip to Scotland, I also lit a candle. My dad was able to snap a few pictures of me doing so, and for that I was grateful; I want to be able to remember this while I’m abroad in Scotland. But it did feel a little too tourist-y. Even though others were taking photos, I imagined the shutter sound of my camera only contributed to distracting other devout church-goers who were truly in there just to pray and not to collect memories.
Speaking of being tourist-y, I found myself wondering how many people at Holy Hill were actually parishioners or just visitors. My guess is that there was a ton of the latter. There was a huge number of people taking photos both before and after Mass, as well as in the shrine and chapel we visited. I couldn’t help but notice that of the many visitors who were taking photos, nearly all of them were Filipinx. I knew this photo-taking wasn’t out of disrespect — I mean, it is a national shrine, after all — I would bet it was because they, like my family, made pilgrimages of their own to visit Holy Hill. (I’m currently reading Stephen M. Cherry’s Faith, Family, and Filipino American Community Life and despite my own personal grievances with Catholicism as well as its its history in the Philippines, I am just so touched by the dedication my people have to their faith.)
Our road trip up into central Wisconsin completed itself with a visit to Culver’s — seriously, the cheese curds are just ten times better in the homeland — after a failed attempt at trying to visit Five O’Clock Steakhouse (lesson learned: check restaurant hours before you start driving). Comatose after stuffing ourselves full of butterburgers and chocolate custard, my dad and I knocked out in the car while my mom delivered us home safe and sound. Til next time, Holy Hill.