What do you do with your in-laws on a Sunday in Waukesha after a morning of antiquing and a hearty brunch topped off with fresh cream cakes and sweet coffee? You take them on the exhilarating 178-step climb at the observatory atop the Neo-Romanesque Holy Hill Shrine of Mary for a spectacular view of the Waukesha Horizon and a moment of solitude, followed by a tour of the Pennsylvania brick church, Bedford stone statues and stone glacial grottos.
We entered the door of the observatory spire and were confronted with a tiny stairway. We began to ascend in single file; the walls seemed to be right up against us. It was not difficult to imagine the friars climbing the stairs in solitary silence. Above us there was much clattering of feet as heels clanked against the wrought iron stairs.
As we reached the last landing between the flights of stairs, I could feel the wind flapping around my ankles through the little iron bars at foot level where the wall should be. It was disconcerting, to say the least!
As I ascended the second last flight of stairs and passed the window, the wind blustered between my legs and made me feel as though my feet were not touching the ground – I became light-headed and memories of bad dreams
came over me in waves. Just then my father-in-law said he could go no further, and I, overwhelmed by a sense of dread, quickly turned on my heels and tore down the stairs, leaving all politeness behind me.
The rest of my in-laws went boldly on, unperturbed, and indeed invigorated by the adventure. The top of the steeple stands 481 feet above the marsh and the slippery wrought iron stairs cause the observatory to be closed on rainy days for safety reasons.
The building’s three spires, one of which is copper, stretch up to the sky, as if reaching for God himself.
Safely back on the ground I took the half mile pilgrim walk that surrounds the sanctuary decorated with 14 life size sculptures depicting the way of the cross housed in glacial stone grottos.
As I entered the Chapel of St Theresa the heady scent of frankincense and myrrh filled my nostrils. Built in 1881, the church is furnished with beautiful cooling terrazzo floors. The hand carved oak pews creaked when I sat down echoing and alerting the whole chapel to my presence. The main altar of Botticino and Tabernelle marble commands center stage, hand wrought iron and bronze metal work coupled with ornately carved faces on the pillars tower down on parishners as they come and go. The chandeliers spell out Hadegetria, meaning Mary, leader of the Pilgrims. Stained glass windows by Ban Treeck studios, Bavaria, are a colorful and hypnotizing feature.
Crutches and walking sticks clutter a doorway in the chapel leading to the Shrine chapel having been left behind by believers. The whole church is steeped in symbols and inscriptions, the all Seeing Eye, painted by Francis Enders in the 1960s being the most memorable.
I asked Father Paul Fohlin what was the significance of all these symbols and incantations. He pointed out that no single
inscription was an incantation and that, “The whole church is a composition.”
For many of us symbols carry a magical significance, but Father Fohlin said these symbols came into being at a time when most people could not read and write, thus they served a practical purpose.
No sacred site in Spring City would be complete without a good water tale: Sometime after purchasing Holy Hill from the Potawotami Indians for $50 in 1851, the monks encountered a water problem, or rather the lack of it. They made a special prayer to evoke Elijah to help them solve the problem. They struck water and erected the grotto that now stands in his honor.