On October 8, 1871, a terribly tragic and almost entirely forgotten episode in American history took place.
Strong winds came to northeastern Wisconsin and fanned the flames of small fires begun by farmers attempting to clear the forest. The largest wildfire in American history ensued as a result. The roaring blaze, known as the Peshtigo Fire, consumed 1.2 million acres of land (an area much larger than the state of Rhode Island) and took the lives of around 2,000 people. An accurate death toll has never been recorded, as 12 whole communities were destroyed leaving few survivors to identify bodies or report missing loved ones. In the midst of this catastrophe, the locals of a town then known as Robinsonville, but today called Champion, fled their homes, which were soon swallowed up by the flames. Further north, some were able to escape the encroaching wall of fire by spending the whole night in the Peshtigo River. The people of Champion did not have that option, and knew they could not outrun the rapidly approaching inferno. They fled to a local shrine dedicated to the Mother of God under the title of Our Lady of Good Help to pray for a miracle.
What drew them there? What gave them the confidence that this land would be protected by Heaven as a sure place of refuge in the midst of such devastation? The answer to these questions lies in what happened on the grounds of that Marian sanctuary precisely 12 years earlier, to the very day, on October 8, 1859.
In the mid-19th century, a wave of immigrants came to settle the farmlands of the American Midwest. A “Belgian Colony” developed in a wooded forest 15 miles northeast of the city of Green Bay. Though the winters were harsh and much work was necessary to clear the trees for farming, hundreds of acres of land could be purchased for a measly sum. This enticed a great influx of immigrants, and among them was the family of Adele Brise. Born in Dion-le-Val, in the province of Brabant, Belgium on January 30, 1831, Adele was a pious young woman with only a meager education. Despite having lost an eye in an accident involving lye, she always maintained a positive disposition and a great trust in God. She desired to enter a religious order dedicated to missionary work, but under the council of her confessor was humbly obedient to her parent’s wishes that she help them with the rough burdens of pioneer life when they came to America. Adele, with her two parents and three siblings and a young second cousin, settled in the far-off land of the Green Bay peninsula. Though it must have hurt her to leave all she knew in Belgium behind, and to relinquish her desire for the life of a missionary, Adele would be the Lord’s chosen instrument for an important work in this strange and foreign land.
Four years after the arrival of her family in what is now Champion, Wisconsin, 28-year-old Adele was assisting her parents one Saturday afternoon by carrying a large load of grain to her home. On her way she saw a vision in between a maple and hemlock tree that caused her both great awe and fear. She saw a beautiful woman dressed in dazzling white with a golden sash around her waist. She hurried home to tell her parents what she had seen, and they speculated together that perhaps what she saw was a ghost of a Holy Soul in Purgatory who was in need of prayers.
The next morning, Sunday, October 9, Adele set off on the long, 11-mile walk to church to fulfill her Sunday obligation. She was accompanied by her sisters and another woman of the village. On their way, in between the same maple and hemlock trees, Adele again saw the lady in white. With great fear she hurried on to the church for Sunday Mass. Immediately following she approached the priest in the confessional and confided in him all that she had seen. He gave her wise counsel. He told her that if it was of Heaven, she would seen the vision again, and that if she did, she was to ask in the name of God who it was and what it wanted of her. Sure enough, on the way back home, in between the same two trees, Adele saw the lady in white yet again. An account of what happened to Adele is provided in the memoirs of Sister Pauline LaPlante, a Third Order Franciscan, who was one of Adele’s closest friends and helpers:
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 around her shoulders. Such a heavenly light shone around her that Adele could hardly look back 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 she had been directed.
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. ‘O 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,’ replied her radiant visitor, ‘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.’
Wrapped as it were in a luminous atmosphere, our Lady lifted her hands as though she were beseeching a blessing for those at her feet. Slowly, she vanished from sight leaving Adele overwhelmed and prostrate on the ground, and the dense woods as solemn as before.
In 1859 when these events occurred, the population of Wisconsin, as in other areas of the country, was growing rapidly. The immigrants settling new lands were far removed from priests, parishes, and schools, which led to a great loss of faith and morals. Our Lady of Good Help came in answer to the great need of poor souls in danger of losing the Faith, imparting a teaching mission to Adele Brise. It was an extraordinary visitation to a simple immigrant farm girl along a dirt road in a wooded countryside. The Blessed Virgin Mary instructed Adele to pray for the conversion of sinners, receive Holy Communion, go to confession, and teach the children of America the Catholic Faith.
Shortly thereafter, Adele dutifully began teaching the catechism to the immigrant youth of the local Belgian community in obedience to Our Lady’s command. This mission was no small burden for a woman with little education and few resources. She began to teach from house to house, even traveling as far as 50 miles by foot, no matter the weather condition, up and down the Green Bay Peninsula. Adele was determined to fulfill the mission given to her by the Mother of God, come what may.
News of the apparition and the mission given to Adele spread far and wide. Most believed and very quickly. Her father built a small oratory of logs at the site where she saw the Holy Virgin, but the site of the apparitions began to attract more and more pilgrims. A new chapel was built in 1861 that could seat one hundred people; inscribed above the entrance were the words, Notre Dame de bon Secours, priez pour nous—“Our Lady of Good Help, Pray for us”—from which the Marian title of the apparition derives its name.
By 1864, inspired by Adele’s witness and the message of Our Lady, several other women joined her apostolic work. They never took formal religious vows but did join the Franciscan Third Order, wore religious habits, and lived a communal life according to the Franciscan charism in a farmhouse not far from the chapel built on the site of the apparition. The “Sisters of God Help” as they came to be known, opened a school named St. Mary’s Academy beside the chapel in 1867. The school provided a free education on all academic subjects with a special emphasis on the catechism.
Twelve years to the day after the Holy Virgin sanctified that ground with her heavenly presence this work in fulfillment of her request was threatened with total destruction as the raging inferno of the Peshtigo Fire approached the grounds of the chapel and school. On the night of October 8 and into the early hours of October 9, with nowhere to escape the flames, locals fled to the site of the apparition. Led by Sister Adele, they prayed the Rosary and raised a statue of Our Lady, bearing it in procession and circling the grounds of the sanctuary. They were praying for a miracle. Several times during the night the procession had to turn in another direction, because the wind brought smoke that almost caused them to suffocate. Undeterred, they continued the Rosary and the procession until their supplications were heard. The heavens opened and a downpour of rain came. They and the shrine were spared, while just beyond the fence of the sanctuary lay utter destruction as far as the eye could see. Amid the devastation caused by the worst wildfire in American history, the sanctuary of Our Lady of Good Help stood out like an oasis amid a desert of ashes.
To this day every year at the shrine there is a procession in commemoration of this miracle.
Fulfilling Our Lady’s mission was no easy task for Adele, even after the great favor from Heaven. She had to endure many sufferings such as the deaths of two students and the closing of the school for a time due to an epidemic of croup, condemnation and the imposition of an interdict from the first bishop of Green Bay, and the loss of most of her religious community on account of disputes over leadership.
Through these discouraging circumstances Sister Adele never forgot the promise of Our Lady: “I will help you.” She also had hope in the promise of Christ’s Victory on the Cross, that through suffering comes redemption. Indeed, her modest grave beside the chapel at the apparition site reads:
Sacred Cross, under thy shadow
I rest and hope.
Sister Marie Adele Joseph Brice
Died July the 5th, 1896
At the age of 66 years.
The school Sister Adele founded eventually closed in 1928, but interest in the shrine and Our Lady’s message has continued to grow. Thousands of pilgrims still come to the shrine every year, especially for the Feast of the Assumption and for the October 8th commemoration of both the first apparition and the miracle that saved the shrine from the Great Peshtigo Fire. It is the custom of the bishop of Green Bay to come to the shrine on these days and lead the gathered faithful in the celebration of Holy Mass and a Marian procession.
Devotion to Our Lady of Good Help has been a fixture within the Diocese of Green Bay since the miracle of the Peshtigo Fire. Over the years there have been many reports of conversions and physical healings granted through Our Lady of Good Help’s intercession, and her message gives all who embrace it with faith a sense of hope and purpose. Indeed, Our Lady’s message was not meant only for the pioneer immigrants of the mid-19th century, but has immense significance for American Catholics in our own day, especially in light of the decree affirming the authenticity of these events issued by the bishop of Green Bay, David Ricken, in 2010. This makes the apparitions of Our Lady of Good Help here in America one of the few Marian apparitions confirmed with the authority of the Church in Christian history.
In the second part of this report, to be published tomorrow, I will detail my own pilgrimage to this shrine, where I was able to meet with Bishop Ricken and ask him about the process of approving the authenticity of these apparitions which took place in his diocese 160 years ago. The bishop also discusses his hopes for the shrine’s future, and what he believes is most significant about Our Lady’s message for today.
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