Conrad Schmitt Studios Helps Restore Holy Hill

By Sacred Places
Published in "Sacred Places" magazine - Summer 2005

Situated atop eastern Wisconsin’s highest hill, Holy Hill, National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians, draws thousands of pilgrims from across the nation each year.  A wall of abandoned crutches attests to miraculous cures at Holy Hill.  The Shrine was built in 1929 on what has been considered holy ground since the first settlers arrived in Hubertus and built a log chapel there in the 1860s.  Holy Hill’s twin spires rise majestically above a wooded hilltop, visible from hundreds of miles away.

Perched in this dramatic but exposed position, the Shrine suffered from years of bitterly cold winters, scorching summers and severe thunderstorms.  Leaks in the roof, steeples and stained glass windows caused significant water damage to the Shrine’s sanctuary ceiling walls, altar, pews and floor.  To restore the Shrine to glory, Holy Hill’s Carmelite caretakers launched a two-phase restoration project.  Completed in 2002, phase one replaced the slate roof, tuck-pointed the walls and installed new gutters, downspouts and laminated glass to protect the stained glass windows.

With the “building envelope” sealed, the Carmelites embarked on phase two – a complete renovation of the water-damaged sanctuary, the largest restoration project in the Shrine’s history.  For this project, they called on Conrad Schmitt Studios (CSS), one of the oldest and most respected studios providing decorative finishes, painting and stained glass and etched glass to churches around the country.

Founded in 1889 in Milwaukee by Conrad Schmitt, the son of Bavarian immigrants and a talented artisan and businessman, CSS quickly built a reputation as one of the few studios – along with Tiffany – that provided both decorating services and stained glass.  CSS was purchased by artist Bernard O. Gruenke in 1953 and is now directed by three generations of the Gruenke family.  It boasts 60 full-time artisans whose talents range from technical craftsmanship to fine arts.  CSS has provided artwork, decoration and stained glass to Holy Hill since the 1920s.

CSS Project Director Rick Statz began meeting with the Carmelites in 1997 to plan the renovation project and “totally new decorative painting scheme that would enhance the Shrine’s Romanesque architecture and give the interior the same awe-inspiring feel that the exterior has had for pilgrims for many years,” Statz explains.  Work began in October 2004 and finished in May 2005.

While Shrines are usually more lavish than churches, the Carmelites are known for their simple interiors.  So CSS eliminated the use of 24-karat gold leaf in the new painting scheme and, instead, used a 16-karat pale gold that almost looks like silver.  To lend the interior nobility and strength, all the arches were meticulously painted to look like cut stone.  Painted faux stone and marble give the impression that the Shrine has brand new marble columns, stone block work on the walls, and marble and mosaic inlay on the proscenium over the altar.

Flaking plaster was repaired and painted; damaged stone columns and wainscoting, terrazzo floors and marble shrines were cleaned and repaired; water-damaged pews were repaired and refinished; and massive pendant light fixtures and other ornamental metalwork, black with soot, were restored to a handsome bronze.

Statz also worked with sound and lighting consultants to create and install a new sound system and state-of-the-art theatrical lighting that highlights the Shrine’s architectural features and improves ambient light for visibility.

•    Conrad Schmitt Studios is a member of Partners’ Professional Alliance.  For more information on this membership resource for congregations and design professionals, please see page 18 or visit Partners’ website:

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