When the Mother of God came to America

The remarkable story of the Apparition of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, Wisconsin.

The Apparition Oratory beneath the Principal Church in Champion, Wisconsin, where Our Lady appeared to Adele Brise between the maple and the hemlock tree. (Photo courtesy of the author)

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.

The Chapel at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, built in 1941-42. (Photo courtesy of the author)

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.

The grave of the visionary, Adele Brise. (Photo courtesy of the author)

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About Father Seán Connolly 24 Articles
Father Seán Connolly is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. He attended Saint Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, where he received a Bachelor of Sacred Theology as well as a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts. He currently serves as parochial vicar at the Parish of St. Joseph in Middletown, New York.

6 Comments

  1. When the Mother of God came to America AGAIN.
    Was it not in 16th century near Mexico City that She appeared before?

    Nevertheless, this is an article which I have appreciated and am edified by the sanctuary from the fire described, knowing bushfires in Australia so well during by seven decades of life so far.

  2. Is there a cause for sainthood for Adele, if not, that would seem not consistent with other apparitions of this magnitude. She seems to be another example of a humble person called by God, through Mary, to do God’s work. This story has been hidden for too long. Thank You for bringing this Shrine and the role of Adele more to light.

    • This same question you raise about Adele Brise I posed to Bishop Ricken in my interview with him. You can read his answer in part 2 of this report which I expect will be published today.

  3. A very interesting story thank you Fr Sean. Another incident involving Our Lady of Good Counsel ocurred around Our Lady’s feast day om December 1848 at the Benedictine Monastery at New Norcia in Western Australia

    Working hard, hoping for better days
    In the demanding years of 1846 to 1848, Salvado’s many abilities were focused on
    maintaining the mission. Three stories give a picture. When more supplies were needed,
    Salvado set out for Perth with an Aboriginal guide.
    On arrival he found the bishop had nothing to give. A man of considerable musical talent,
    Salvado decided to appeal directly to the public. The concert Salvado gave to raise funds has
    achieved legendary status for its fine music, and for the generous co-operation it evoked.
    He remembered: ‘Governor Clarke graciously granted the use of the courthouse; the local
    printer brought out the program at his own expense. Without being asked, the Anglican
    minister sent along carpets from his church
    for the improvised hall, and his sexton attended to the lighting. A Jew, Mr Samson,
    forwarded invitations to prominent citizens and collected tickets at the entrance. The Sisters
    of Mercy provided the pianoforte’ (Memoirs).
    With a light heart and £70 in hand, Salvado was gathering provisions for the mission but,
    unexpectedly, Serra arrived in Perth with Tootle whose health had broken down.
    Then disaster struck again when Gorman, the Irish catechist, was accidentally shot dead by
    Fonteinne, the French novice, who withdrew, his nerves shattered. Only Serra and Salvado
    remained. The nomadic life of the Aboriginal people was too great a challenge; the mission
    needed more than a campsite. Salvado later said: ‘It is known that one of our first and main
    objectives was to establish a Benedictine community at New Norcia, without which we did
    not think that anything good could be achieved for the civilisation and conversion of those
    savages’. (1883)
    The two monks laboured hard to produce their first crop. Salvado wrote: ‘Father Serra
    directed the bullocks, and I guided the plough. Indeed, I can say that I have watered the
    Australian soil with the sweat of my brow and with the blood of my lacerated feet.’
    (Memoirs) Once more their efforts were dogged
    by misfortune. During a Perth trip in December 1846, Salvado and Serra left a hired hand in
    charge but, on return, they were dismayed to find him missing and the mission robbed and
    ruined.
    More disappointment lay ahead. Early in 1847, a magistrate declared Serra and Salvado
    were trespassing on another settler’s allocation of Yued land. With the help
    of an Aboriginal guide, a new site was selected on the Moore River. Once the land had been
    formally granted, the foundations of the monastery were laid on 1st March 1847. Serra and
    Salvado named the place New Norcia, after Benedict’s birthplace.
    On 28th April 1847, thanks to generous French and Irish tradesmen who volunteered their
    help, the monks moved to a modest stone building that was both chapel and dwelling. The
    chapel was dedicated to the Most Holy Trinity. Set up above the altar was the treasured
    picture of Our Lady of Good Counsel, given to them in Rome by Father (later Saint) Vincent
    Pallotti.
    The new building gave the two monks new energy for their task. Numbers of Aborigines
    came and settled near the monastery. Serra and Salvado provided them with food and despite an inadequate supply of medicines and equipment, cared for the sick and injured.
    They began to teach the Christian faith. When the parents of three Aboriginal boys asked
    the monks for a European education, a ‘school’ was begun. All was going well when another
    crisis struck.
    In mid-December 1848, Niniaga, a woman who was being attacked by her husband,
    Munanga, sought help from the monks who, when they found they could not calm him
    down, took her to the chapel for safety. Enraged, Munanga, who was a local leader among
    his people, left the Mission and the monks returned to their tasks. The next day a bush fire,
    driven by a strong wind, spread through the grass towards the sheaves of harvested corn. As
    the Mission came under threat, all hands fought the scorching blaze. When the situation
    seemed hopeless the monks took their
    picture of Our Lady of Good Counsel from
    the chapel and placed it against the standing
    corn. At that moment the wind began to
    blow in the opposite direction and the fire
    died out.
    Salvado wrote: ‘thus did we witness the
    protection granted by our Holy Mother… A
    large number of natives witnessed this
    marvellous event. Some of them, looking at
    the miraculous picture uttered these words
    with simplicity and truth: ‘This white lady
    knows so much! It was she who did it, yes, it
    was she…’. Next morning the monks
    celebrated a thanksgiving Mass in honour of
    Our Lady, at which many Aborigines were
    present. (Memoirs)
    By the end of 1848, the mission had bought land to add to the original grant and ran cattle
    and a flock of sheep. Serra was in Rome, and Salvado managed the mission alone. In
    September, news arrived that distressed Salvado: Serra had been appointed bishop of the
    new settlement of Port Victoria (the garrison town of Darwin). Salvado was determined to
    carry on at New Norcia, but his troubles were just beginning. In January 1849, he went to
    Perth to deliver a load of wool, and was unexpectedly ordered by the bishop to go to Rome,
    to raise funds and recruit missionaries. Salvado prepared to embark, but feared New Norcia
    would be abandoned.

    Excerpt from the bicentenary publication
    “Rosendo Salvado, Commemorating 200 Years”
    by Fr John Herbert (2014)

  4. Our Blessed Mother came also in the early 1950’s to a little cloistered nun named, Sister Mildred Mary Neuzil. In Sister Neuzil’s diary, Our Lady identified herself as Our Lady of America, specifically, the United States of America. She is calling her children in our country, giving us great hope and promises; but no one is listening. Please go to ourladyofamerica.com to learn about her.

  5. Thank God for this information. It reminds me the wonderful work Our Lady has done in my life. After baptism and first Holy Communion, I taught catechism, lead rosary prayers in hones and streets in our local areas, I worked with several priests and was a leader of several pious lay groups especially the Marian associations. For about 8 years I worked with a missionary congregation after which I married a lady who hide from me the fact that she was initiated at birth to the evil Marine kingdom. This lady dealt with me so bad and did everything possible to kill me both physically and spiritually I believe Our Holy Mother did not allow her to succeed. I took or reported her to not less than 65 Catholic priests and bishop they could not help matters only one or two were able to prescribe a prayer which led to her confessing that she belongs to the evil group. (wrote something to this effect in a diary). She abandoned me in 2012. Had 5 children for me, she is misleading them to live an immoral and sinful lives, yet our priests cannot help out. Any one that can help my family should contact me. I never joke with my daily recitation of the Holy Rosary and propagating devotion to her. A bishop had given me approval to propagate devotion. To her during the Marian year so many priests welcomed me in their parishes for this Apostolate. In grateful anticipation. David

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