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Upon arriving at his new assignment as bishop of Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 2008, Bishop David L. Ricken was skeptical of claims that the Mother of God had once appeared in the diocese at what is now the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, Wisconsin.
“I’m very devoted to the Blessed Mother. But I had never even heard of the place,” Bishop Ricken told Our Sunday Visitor. But time, a thorough investigation and personal prayer all led Bishop Ricken not only to overcome his skepticism, but to make the Champion apparition the only formally approved Marian apparition site in the United States — and one of only 17 in the world.
Queen of Heaven
In early October 1859, a 28-year-old woman named Adele Brise walked alone in the Wisconsin woods. Born in the Brabant province of Belgium to a Catholic family that included two other children, Brise had immigrated with her parents to the United States just four years earlier. They came as part of a first wave of Belgian immigrants, prompted by crop failures and difficult economic conditions in their homeland. To this day, northern Wisconsin has the highest concentration of people of Belgian descent in the United States.
Headed for a nearby grist mill with a sack of wheat on her shoulder, Adele saw a woman dressed in a luminous white dress standing among the trees, who then disappeared. She saw the same woman a few days later, on Sunday, Oct. 9, as she walked the 11-mile path to the church in a nearby town with her sister and another woman. Again the woman disappeared, leaving Adele disturbed.
On the walk back home after Mass, the woman in white appeared again. She had blonde hair, and a circle of stars surrounded her head. This time, Adele fell to her knees and asked her who she was and what she wanted.
“I am the Queen of Heaven,” the woman said, “who prays for the conversion of sinners, and I wish you to do the same. You received holy Communion this morning, and that is well. But you must do more. Make a general confession, and offer Communion for the conversion of sinners. If they do not convert and do penance, my Son will be obliged to punish them.”
The woman continued, “Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation. Teach them their catechism, how to sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross and how to approach the sacraments; that is what I wish you to do. Go and fear nothing. I will help you.”
Whether the conversation happened in French or in Adele’s native dialect, known as Walloon, is unclear; she spoke both languages easily.
“The apparition did not happen in English. Adele didn’t know English well and needed a companion to translate when having conversations in English,” Father Edward Looney, a priest of the Diocese of Green Bay and an expert on the Champion apparition, told OSV.
Responding to the call
Adele immediately shared what had happened with her family. She also quickly took up the task entrusted to her by Mary. In the months and years that followed, Adele walked from village to village and home to home, over a 50-mile radius. She offered to do housework in people’s homes in exchange for the opportunity to catechize their children. A chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Good Help was built on the site of the apparition.
Eventually, encouraged by the local priest, Adele gathered companions to share in the work. They formed a group of lay Third Order Franciscans. Though they took no formal vows, they wore the Franciscan habit. In the 1860s, they started a school, St. Mary’s Boarding Academy, near the chapel.
Over the decades, the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help became a familiar part of life in the Champion area. It was, and remains, a place of great peace, pilgrimage and even healing. The current chapel includes many crutches left behind as examples of many illnesses and diseases that have been cured following visits by pilgrims.
Needed in our day
Soon after his arrival in Green Bay, Bishop Ricken learned that his immediate predecessor had begun informally gathering documentation on the apparition. Bishop Ricken decided to formalize the process.
The formal investigation included a thorough study of the apparition and the shrine’s history by three theologians. According to the Church’s norms, the Vatican was not involved in the investigation, but Bishop Ricken kept the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith informed of its progress and received regular encouragement from that office.
The Peshtigo Fire
The National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help has a place in the story of one of America’s historic tragedies. On Oct. 8, 1871, a massive forest fire broke out in northern Wisconsin. What would become known as the Peshtigo Fire ultimately burned well over 1 million acres and killed about 1,500 people — making it the deadliest fire in American history. (The Great Chicago Fire, though much more famous, happened on the very same day but caused much less damage and fewer casualties.)
As the fire raged through the region, many terrified residents took shelter at the Chapel of Our Lady of Good Help. They prayed there together for hours, even processing around the grounds with a statue of Our Lady as the fire roared nearby. Ultimately the grounds were spared, and a heavy rain helped extinguish the fire on the early morning of Oct. 9, the 12th anniversary of Adele Brise’s apparition.
Upon a favorable conclusion of the investigation, Bishop Ricken decided to formally approve it, which he did on Dec. 8, 2010.
“It struck me in prayer that this is not just a nice thing to do, but something really pertinent and needed in our day,” Bishop Ricken told OSV.
“There is so much secularism and individualism all around us. There is a great need for people to get to know the Lord Jesus. The simple Gospel message needs to be proclaimed again. Children need to be instructed.”
The approval does not mean that any Catholic is obliged to believe that Mary appeared to Adele, but that Catholics are free to accept the apparition as true and that it represents no danger to their faith.
Since the approval, the number of visitors to the shrine has increased dramatically, from around 10,000 per year to 150,000 per year. Shrine rector Father John Broussard, a member of the Fathers of Mercy who administers the shrine, is working with staff to develop a capacity to accommodate half a million visitors per year.
Today, much of the shrine’s work is carried out by an army of 200 local volunteers, many of whom are descendants of the people who survived the Peshtigo Fire while huddled on its grounds (see sidebar). The shrine’s communication director, Corrie Campbell, says almost everyone in the area has some connection to Adele. Some are the great-grandchildren of people who were taught as children by the visionary.Since the approval, the number of visitors to the shrine has increased dramatically, from around 10,000 per year to 150,000 per year. Shrine rector Father John Broussard, a member of the Fathers of Mercy who administers the shrine, is working with staff to develop a capacity to accommodate half a million visitors per year.
As knowledge of the shrine and its story continues to grow, it is clear that they will not be the only beneficiaries of this gift.