Arndt of Oconomowoc, manager of the Holy Hill Café,
Kelly Smith/Special to
TOWN OF ERIN — Managing the
Hill Café is going to be one of the biggest challenges that Karen
Arndt, 46, of Oconomowoc has faced in her culinary career.
A culinary management graduate from Waukesha County Technical
College, Arndt is taking over the establishment as it completes a
transition from a full-service cafeteria to a coffee, sandwich and
With its large commercial kitchen and buffet line, and seating for
up to 150 customers, the café is in the Old Monastery Inn, which was
built 102 years ago onto the side of a hill directly below the
Basilica and National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians at Holy
Robert Mitchell, executive director of the Holy Hill church and
shrine, explained the transition from buffet to café is intended to
provide cost-effective, quality food and refreshments, to the
hundreds of thousands of visitors — described as “pilgrims” by
church officials — who come to tour and worship at the shrine.
“We have a menu of soups, salads and sandwiches. Our primary mission
is to serve the pilgrims,” Arndt said.
“But we want to go beyond that, we want to reach out to the
community,” she added.
“A lot of people don’t know we are here.”
“We want to add some items to our menu and maybe make some changes
in our hours to attract the people in the local community who come
here to bike and hike and enjoy the beauty,” she concluded.
For example, pumpkin chili is a new addition to the café menu that
Arndt says is receiving favorable reviews.
Instead of using the traditional beef along with tomato paste broth,
she uses chicken and a chicken broth with a pumpkin puree to create
a unique flavor.
“I have never had anyone who tried it say they did not like it,” she
One of the biggest challenges that Arndt faces in managing the café
is the extremely seasonal nature of its business.
During the Kettle Moraine’s spectacular fall color season, it can be
standing room only in the café.
Holy Hill Café is located in the Old Missionary Inn,
which used to be the residence for friars who lived at
Holy Hill. The inn is more than 100 years old and was
built into a hill below the church.
Kelly Smith/Special to
‘Feast or famine’
However, in the midst of winter the dining area and
kitchen are almost empty.
“It can be feast or famine,” Arndt explained.
“During the fall color season, we are packed with a line
of people outside waiting to get in,” she continued.
During peak seasons, beginning in June, the café is open
four days a week from Wednesday to Sunday.
It is open three days a week, Friday through Sunday,
during the winter and spring seasons from November until
June After spending about 25 years working in various
manufacturing jobs, Arndt, at the age of 40, and after
taking a European trip with her teenage son, decided “it
was time for a change.”
While enrolled in the WCTC Culinary Management program,
she interned as a kitchen manager at the Inspiro
Catholic Youth Retreat Center at the intersection of
highways K and C in the Town of Merton.
After the retreat center closed in 2017, she held
various part-time food service and grocery jobs until
she learned of the Holy Hill Café opportunity from
former co-workers at the retreat center.
Arndt says it is a coincidence that most of her culinary
career has been spent managing kitchen and food
operations at religious facilities owned by the Catholic
A basilica’s roots
Catholic and Protestant churches in Europe and the
eastern United States sent missionaries to the Upper
Midwest in the mid-1800s to serve the thousands of
settlers lured to the lakes and forests by cheap land
prices and new opportunities.
One of them was Father Francis Paulhuber of Salzburg,
Austria, who was struck by the beauty of a large hill
near a farm he was visiting and purchased 40 acres for
“I feel sure that hill will become one of the most noted
places in all of this land; when it shall be consecrated
and made holy; a place of worship and pilgrimage when
tens of thousands shall come to do homage to the Virgin
Mary and her son,” he wrote.
Through the stewardship of the Roman Catholic Church’s
Order of Discalced Carmelites and the Archdiocese of
Milwaukee, the property grew to 432 acres.
The first church, a tiny log cabin, was build in 1863.
It was replaced by a larger structure in 1881 and the
existing church was constructed in 1926.
With its soaring towers and majestic stained glass
windows, the church is 168 feet long, between 80 and 90
feet wide, and 88 feet high; sitting nearly 1,500 feet
above sea level on the highest elevation in southeastern
Holy Hill was declared a shrine in 1903 by Pope Leo XII
and the church designated as minor basilica by Pope
Benedict XVI in 2006.
It is among 84 churches in the United States that have
received special recognition and rites by a pope.
It is listed on both the Wisconsin and National
Registers of Historic Places and was declared by Gov.
Tommy Thompson in 1998 as “a valued historical landmark
and an architectural masterpiece.”