On December 8, 2010, Green Bay Bishop David Ricken made Church history. On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, before an invitation-only congregation of 250 at the packed at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, Wisconsin, he declared valid and “worthy of belief” the first Marian apparitions in United States.
In his decree, Bishop Ricken wrote:
For over 151 years, a continuous flow of the faithful has come to Champion, Wisconsin, to pray, to seek solace and comfort in times of trouble, and to petition Our Lord Jesus Christ through the powerful intercession to Our Lady of Good Help….
Graces have been poured out through the sacraments celebrated in this place, especially through the celebration of the Mass and the sacrament of reconciliation, as well as through the recitation of public devotions and private prayers….
[I] declare with moral certainty and in accord with the norms of the Church that the events, apparitions, and locutions given…in October of 1859 do exhibit the substance of supernatural character, and I do hereby approve these apparitions as worthy of belief (although not obligatory) by the Christian faithful.
“This is now an official declaration and an explicit recognition of what has been going on in the development and expression of people’s faith in our Lord Jesus,” Bishop Ricken said in his homily, according to The Compass, Green Bay’s diocesan paper. “Mary always leads us to Jesus. We hold Mary in such high regard because she is the mother of our savior Jesus Christ. So she is probably the greatest evangelist and catechist who ever lived…. She has been sent out all these years since Christ’s death and Resurrection to proclaim this good news.”
Up until Bishop Ricken’s declaration, few people outside the Green Bay area had even heard of these apparitions of Mary, known by the title of Our Lady of Green Bay or Our Lady of Champion. Their story was only found in a booklet sold at the shrine gift shop, on a few websites, and in a book by Green Bay priest and Confraternity of Catholic Clergy co-founder Father Richard Gilsdorf, The Signs of the Times: Understanding the Church Since Vatican II.
Indeed, if people were aware of alleged appearances by the Blessed Virgin in Wisconsin, they were likely those visions claimed by the late Mary Ann Van Hoof, who declared she had seen the Queen of Heaven on numerous occasions between 1949 and her death in 1984. Diocesan bishops—including Cardinal Raymond Burke, when he was ordinary for La Crosse—repeatedly condemned these claims as false. That, however, didn’t stop thousands of pilgrims from coming to the spurious shrine at Van Hoof’s home in the remote town of Necedah.
But whereas Van Hoof’s “messages” had Our Lady claiming that true believers at Necedah would be rescued from Armageddon by a 1,200-year-old man named Joe, who would save them at the very last moment in his spaceship, the Green Bay apparitions were beautifully simple. The story begins with an immigrant Belgian girl named Adele Brise. As a small child, Brise had an accident involving lye that caused the loss of an eye and the deformation of her face. Believing that no man would marry her and because of her deep piety, she resolved from childhood to enter the Sisters of Providence of the Immaculate Conception at Champion, Belgium.
Her parents, however, had asked her to immigrate with them to upper Wisconsin, where there was a growing colony of Belgians, and her confessor told her to obey them. “If God wills it,” he told her, “you will become a sister in America. Go, I will pray for you.”
Her family came to establish a farm at what was then called Robinsonville. (The name later changed to Champion when then-Sister Adele happened upon a city council meeting, and was asked her opinion on what the new town name should be. She suggested Champion, after the Belgian town where she would have entered the religious life.) Adele had lived in the area for four years when on Sunday, October 9, 1859, she was walking to the local gristmill. Then, at the site where the chapel now stands, she beheld a beautiful woman dressed in dazzling white standing between two trees. The lady said nothing. She simply stared at her. Adele stopped, partly in fear, partly in fascination. This continued for several minutes, neither one saying a word. And then the lady was gone, her presence replaced by a gradually diminishing cloud of white mist. The 28-year-old woman rushed home and related what had happened to her parents, who surmised it was a poor soul in purgatory subtly beseeching her prayers.
A week later, Adele, her sister, and a neighbor lady walked to Mass, 11 miles away. When they came to the two trees, Adele saw the woman once more. “Oh! There is that lady again,” she exclaimed, and while her companions saw nothing, they could tell Adele felt great fear. This vision also lasted some minutes and, as before, disappeared in a cloud of white mist.
After Mass, Adele went to Father William Verhoeff, OSC, and told him of the strange occurrences. He replied if the vision was from heaven, she had nothing to fear. He then told her if she saw it again, she should ask “in God’s name who it was and what it desired of her.”
She left for home with her two companions and a man from the parish. As Sister M. Domica, OSF later wrote:
As they approached the hallowed spot, Adele could see the beautiful lady, clothed in dazzling white, with a yellow sash around her waist. Her dress fell to her feet in graceful folds. She had a crown of stars around her head, and her long, golden, wavy hair fell loosely over her shoulders; such a heavenly light shone around her that Adele could hardly look at her sweet face. Overcome by this heavenly light and the beauty of her amiable visitor, Adele fell on her knees. “In God’s name, who are you, and what do you want of me?” asked Adele, as Father had directed her.
“I am the Queen of Heaven, 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.”
“Adele, who is it?” said one of the women. “Oh, why can’t we see her as you do?” said another, weeping.
“Kneel,” said Adele. “The Lady says she is the Queen of Heaven.”
Our Blessed Lady turned, looked kindly at them, and said, “Blessed are they that believe without seeing.”
“What are you doing here in idleness,” continued Our Lady, “while your companions are working in the vineyard of my Son?”
“What more can I do, dear Lady?” said Adele, weeping.
“Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation.”
“But how shall I teach them, who know so little myself?” replied Adele.
“Teach them their catechism,” replied her radiant visitor, “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.”
At this point, Our Lady looked heavenward and raised her hands as if praying for a blessing on those present. Then she disappeared.
Adele took to the task given her with great vigor. Sometimes she would walk as many as 50 miles, offering to do housework at farms in return for permission to catechize the children. At the community’s chapel in Bay Settlement, she would gather the children around the altar of Our Lady, where she would tell them her story and teach hymns. Eventually, Adele gathered a group of like-minded women and formed a religious order called the Sisters of Good Health. They established a convent and small school and later a chapel at the apparition site.
Over time crutches and walking sticks would be deposited there by pilgrims claiming to have been healed, but nothing confirmed the apparition for believers more than the Peshtigo fire in 1871. It started on October 8, the same day as the more famous Chicago fire, and destroyed an area nearly the size of the state of Rhode Island, taking up to 2,400 lives (compared to 300 in Chicago). The winds driving it were so fierce, the fire actually jumped the bay, a span of roughly five miles.
Those who lived near the chapel rushed to it, hoping the Blessed Virgin would provide them sanctuary. Many were hysterical and not a few convinced themselves this was the end of the world. Early the next day, a torrential rain fell, extinguishing the fire. It was 12 years to the day of Sister Adele’s visions. All inside the chapel were safe. In fact, when they finally went outside, the grass on the grounds was perfectly green. On the chapel side, the wooden fence surrounding the property was “untouched,” while the other side was “smoldering and charred.”
For decades, many believed the fire proved the validity of Sister Adele’s apparitions, but until Bishop Ricken made his declaration, not one of the diocese’s 11 previous shepherds had said anything regarding them. Shrine rector Father John Doerfler surmises it was likely due to lack of resources, especially during the days of the pioneers in the Green Bay area. Despite this, practically every one of the bishops either took part in major liturgical festivities at the apparition chapel or deputed major diocesan officials to do so.
When Ricken came to Green Bay in 2008, he continued a process of inquiry initiated by his predecessor Bishop David Zubick, who is now in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The subsequent formal investigation took roughly two years and was headed by a team of three internationally-known Marian experts whom the diocese will not name. While the investigation formally concluded last summer, Bishop Ricken, who is said to have a deep Marian devotion, took several months to pray and discern before making his decision.
The remote shrine is very simple, rural, and peaceful. Certainly, one would never mistake it for Lourdes or Fatima. The upper chapel is modest, but in the crypt, which marks the precise spot of the apparitions, the pilgrim senses something powerful and humbling that inspires reverence. Karen Tipps, who with her husband has lived on the grounds as caretakers for 18 years, says that one recent day, a busload of Filipinos arrived. When Tipps went outside to greet them, they were gone. She searched for them in the upper church and saw “not a soul.” Investigating further, she went down to the crypt. There she found the 60 pilgrims on their knees in silent prayer.
Since Bishop Ricken’s announcement, things have begun to change rapidly at the once-quiet shrine. Tipps says that from the moment the news broke, phone calls have flooded in from around the country. Indeed, the Green Bay Visitor and Convention Bureau recently devoted a whole page on its website to the shrine due to the numerous inquiries for information they have received.
“I never realized how important it was for people to have a place [for pilgrimage] within their own country,” Tipps says. “All the people in the United States who can’t afford to go on pilgrimage overseas, they’re calling and saying finally there was a place they could go. I tell the people who are local, ‘We don’t know how blessed we’ve been to have had this place almost all to ourselves, but it’s time we share what we have with the rest of the country.’”
Father Doerfler agrees. “I have a great sense of joy when I think of how many lives have been touched by God’s grace through the shrine over the last 151 years,” he said. “I’ve been very much moved by many who’ve told me how their lives have been touched and how it’s been a significant place for them in their spiritual journey. So I have in a certain sense a greater joy and hope that the Lord will use this to touch the lives of even more people.”
Not only have the phone calls increased, but so have the number of visitors. Tipps says that in previous years, a busy week was 800-1,000 visitors. During the final week of last year, normally a very slow time, they had more than that number visit each day. Visitors have come from all around the country, both individuals and entire families.
The problem is that the shrine is not currently equipped to deal with this volume. For instance, there is just one toilet and one phone. These things as well as handicapped access must expand, and there is a plan to build another votive chapel and an enclosure near Sister Adele’s grave. The whole front lawn has become a parking lot. There are no plans at present to expand the chapel, however, and with just a five-and-a-half acre property, there is not much room to grow. This will likely never be another Fatima.
But in a sense, the mission of Our Lady at Green Bay is different than it was at Fatima. Wherever the Blessed Virgin has appeared, her message is, in part, always the same: Sinners must convert. At Green Bay, however, her message had an added dimension: Catechize the young. She is, in the words of the late Father Robert Fox, “Mary the Catechist.”
As Father Gilsdorf of Green Bay wrote, “Here alone in modern apparitions she explicitly defines catechetics as her message and mission. Her words are for America and the world today…basic prayers, sacramental preparation, doctrine that must be learned and taught…. The mission is now ours to pursue, and it is more urgent than ever before: ‘Teach the little children.’ And for those who feel unqualified to teach their holy faith to others (as Adele did): ‘Go and fear nothing: I will help you.’”