"I encourage the faithful to frequent this holy place of solace and answered prayer." (Bishop David L. Ricken, Champion, WI, Dec. 8, 2010)
It finally happened. After 235 years of formal existence as a nation, the United States now has its first fully approved apparition of the Blessed Mother — Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, Wisconsin (once Robinsonville)! Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay has approved the Marian apparitions seen by Adele Brise in 1859, making the apparitions of Mary that occurred some 18 miles northeast of Green Bay the first in the United States to receive approval of a diocesan bishop.
Reading from his decree at a special Mass held on December 8, 2010 at the Champion, Wisconsin shrine, Bishop Ricken stated: "I declare with moral certainly and in accord with the norms of the Church that the events, apparitions, and locutions given to Adele Brise 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." Bishop Ricken cited in his decree the continuous streams of faithful who have come to the shrine for over 150 years to pray to Jesus through the intercession of Our Lady of Good Help, the long tradition of answered prayers, the graces poured out through the sacraments, the character of the visionary, and the immediate and continuing effects and mandate of our Blessed Mother.
Bishop Ricken also issued a second decree, formally approving the shrine as a diocesan shrine. As he stated in his homily, "I encourage the faithful to frequent this holy place of solace and answered prayer."
So let us now read the story behind this shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, beginning with the seer, Adele Brise.
Adele Brise was born in Dion-le-Val, in the Belgian province of Brabant on January 30, 1831. As a child, Adele was involved in an accident with lye that resulted in the loss of an eye. Despite this handicap and a meagre education, Adele was known for her charming and inviting personality, fervent piety, simple religious ways, and confidence in the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
She and several of her companions had promised Our Lady at that time to become religious and devote their lives to the foreign missions. Adele had wished to remain in Belgium where she had made her First Communion to join a religious community, but her parents wished her to come with the rest of the family to immigrate to America. Before leaving Europe, Adele discussed her mixed emotions with her confessor who told her to obey her parents and join them on their move to America, saying: "If God wills it, you will become a sister in America. Go. I will pray for you."
Included in the wave of Belgium immigration to the Green Bay peninsula area during the 1850's was the Brise family. Lambert and Marie Catherine left Belgium in early June of 1855 with their four children, including 24-year-old Adele Joseph Brise. After a seven-week voyage, the Brise family landed in New York, and then ventured westward for Wisconsin. By August of 1855, the Brises purchased 240 acres of land in the town of Red River for $120.00.
Upon moving to the new world, Adele obediently bore the burdens of pioneer life. She was 28 years old when she received the visions of Our Lady, which took place in October of 1859.
Sister Pauline LaPlant, to whom Adele often told her story, wrote an account of what had taken place.
"She (Adele) was going to the grist mill about four miles from here (Champion) with a sack of wheat on her head… As Adele came near the place, she saw a lady all in white standing between two trees, one a maple, the other a hemlock. Adele was frightened and stood still. The vision slowly disappeared, leaving a white cloud after it. Adele continued on her errand and returned home without seeing anything more. She told her parents what had happened, and they wondered what it could be — maybe a poor soul who needed prayers?
"On the following Sunday, she had to pass again on her way to Mass at Bay Settlement, about eleven miles from her home… This time, she was not alone, but was accompanied by her sister, Isabel, and a neighbour woman, Mrs. Vander Niessen. When they came near the trees, the same lady in white was at the place where Adele had seen Her before. Adele was again frightened, and said, almost in a tone of reproach, 'Oh, there is that lady again.'
"Adele had not the courage to go on. The other two did not see anything, but they could tell by Adele's look that she was afraid. They thought, too, that it might be a poor soul that needed prayers. They waited a few minutes, and Adele told them it was gone. It had disappeared as the first time, and all she could see was a little mist or white cloud. After Mass, Adele went to confession and told her confessor how she had been frightened at the sight of a lady in white. He (Father William Verhoef) bade her not to fear, and to speak to him of this outside of the confessional. Father Verhoef told her that if it were a heavenly messenger, she would see it again, and it would not harm her, but to ask in God's name who it was and what it desired of her. After that, Adele had more courage. She started home with her two companions, and a man, who was clearing land for the Holy Cross Fathers at Bay Settlement, accompanied them.
"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? 'asked 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… while your companions are working in the vineyard of My Son?'
"'What more can I do, dear Lady? 'asked 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.'"
The manifestation of Our Lady then lifted Her hands, as though beseeching a blessing for those at Her feet, and slowly vanished, leaving Adele overwhelmed and prostrate on the ground.
When the news spread about Adele Brise's vision of the Blessed Virgin, most people believed the account and were astonished. Some considered the event a demented delusion. Adele Brise, however, considered it a commission to catechize the children and admonish the sinners of the Bay Settlement. To honor the alleged apparition, Adele's father erected a makeshift chapel near the spot of Adele's vision. Later, a second chapel was built there along with a convent nearby and a school.
Adele was a tertiary Franciscan religious who wore a habit and lived as a nun, as there was no formal order there to join at that time.
After receiving the apparitions, Adele Brise immediately began to fulfill the obligations the Blessed Virgin had entrusted to her. She gathered local children and taught them how to pray, make the Sign of the Cross, and to give love, thanks, and praise to the Lord. She would admonish sinners throughout the Bay Settlement and the Green Bay Peninsula. Weather conditions, fatigue, lack of education, dangers of the forest, and ridicule did not deter Adele's duty to Our Lady's request to her. Adele would venture up and down the peninsula, as far as fifty miles from her home, to accomplish her mission.
In 1865, The Reverend Philip Crud was appointed pastor of the Belgian colony. Impressed with the sincerity of Adele and the success of her work, Father Crud advised Adele to recruit help for her assigned mission. He urged her to appeal for funds and to build a convent and school so, in Sister Pauline's words, those in need of religious instruction "could come to her instead of her going to seek them." Enlisting others in her efforts would allow Adele to conserve her health and strength. With a letter of recommendation from Father Crud, Adele and an English-speaking companion, Sister Marguerite Allard, set out to solicit funds around the Green Bay Peninsula. One individual Adele and Marguerite encountered in their fundraising travels was Eliza Allen Starr, author of the book Patron Saints. Starr journaled her meeting with Adele in the book as follows:
"On one of the warmest days of this last summer, coming into my little parlor, I saw two women seated there, dressed in black serge gowns and cloaks, and wearing bonnets exactly like the cape-bonnets that little girls wear. Theirs were made of black berege with narrow strips of pasteboard run in to make them stand out from the face. It gave an air of rustic humility to their costume. I welcomed them as'Sisters'of some order unknown to me, and found that only the youngest one could speak English; but the letter in choice French from Rev. Father P. from Robinsonville (Champion), near Green Bay in Wisconsin, gave me a clue to the mystery before me. It introduced me to Sister Adele, a humble Belgian woman to whom had been granted, undoubtedly, an apparition of our Blessed Lady, leaving her to tell me, through her young interpreter, the story of her graces and of her labours.
"…Sister Adele had no 'price'f or teaching… no tuition bills to make out to her pupils, even at the end of a whole year, and their parents, finding the school a free school, were glad to send their children. Once started, there was no lack of scholars, and very soon, Adele found her room was too small for her school. Then, this courageous woman undertook to beg, from more favored communities, the money necessary for building a large schoolhouse, then a chapel, and finally to raise a home for the religious whom she hoped to persuade to assist her in her great work. It was on this errand that she had come to our city, where churches and schools and sisterhoods flourish, and there were few hearts on which her appeal fell unheeded…
"Sister Adele does not yet belong to any religious order; but if she ever does, I hope she will wear her simple cape-bonnet as a memorial of the rustic garb on which she met the Queen of angels and of saints, and received her commission to teach the little ones of the'household of faith'."
Persistent solicitation of funding and sustenance proved successful, and in 1867, the school was in operation. Adele's fundraising consisted not only of raising money for building projects and education funding, but also for mere sustenance. Adele would beg local farmers for vegetables, grain and meat. But Adele's confidence in Mary's promise to her did not waver. Even when Adele's fellow sisters did not know where the next meal was coming from, Sister Adele would gather her companions, after the children were in bed, and beg for Mary's help in the chapel. Before morning, someone would invariably drop off a bag of flour or supply of meat at the door. Many boarders brought supplies from home as a means of compensation for their education from the sisters.
Following the advice of Father Crud, Sister Adele sought out and gained the help needed for operating a school and convent. Adele enlisted the aid of Sister Mary Gagnon, who was the school's first teacher, and Marguerite Allard, affectionately known as "Sister Maggie", who served as Sister Adele's assistant for 20 years. Sister Adele taught religion to the French and Belgian speaking children.
On October 8, 1871, exactly 12 years to the date since the first vision of Our Lady, a tremendous catastrophe struck by way of a raging fire that destroyed massive swaths of Northeastern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. It was considered to be the worst recorded forest fire in American history. By the time it was over, 1.2 million acres — 1,850 square miles (the size of Rhode Island) — had been consumed, and one to two thousand people were dead. It was described in some parts as "a wall of flame a mile high, five miles wide, traveling 90 to 100 miles an hour, hotter than a crematorium, turning sand into glass."
The fire was so intense that it sent cinders several miles over the waters of Green Bay, and even burned parts of the Door Peninsula. A witness named Edward J. Hall of nearby Oconto had recalled: "Balls of fire were observed to fall like meteors in different parts of the town (Peshtigo), igniting whatever they came in contact with. By this time, the whole population was thoroughly aroused and alarmed, panic-stricken. A brilliant and fearful glare grew suddenly into sight. Men and women snatched their children and ran for the river.
"Inhaling the burning air, hundreds dropped within sight of the river while many fell within a few feet of the river. Those who reached the river threw water and wet cloths on their heads, and even kept under water as much as they could, and yet were burned to death." Some of those who sought refuge in ponds or wells boiled to death.
Remarkably — miraculously — Adele, who was in the heart of it, escaped. Seeking refuge in the chapel, she and other farmers, nuns, and companions made the dash there as fire raged in every direction.
"Awe-stricken, they thronged the chapel grounds," says the history account of the event. "Already, the chapel was filled with terror-stricken people, beseeching the Mother of God to spare them, many wailing aloud in their fright.
"Filled with confidence, they entered the chapel, reverently raised the statue of Mary, and kneeling, bore it in procession around their beloved sanctuary.
"When wind and fire exposed them to suffocation, they turned in another direction and continued to hope and pray, saying the Rosary.
"After hours of horror and suspense, Heaven sent relief by way of a downpour of rain. The fire was extinguished. When they looked out the next morning, everything was destroyed. There was literally desolation for miles.
"But the convent, school, chapel, and the five acres of land consecrated to the Virgin Mary shone like an emerald isle in a sea of ashes," notes the pamphlet. "The raging fire licked the outside palings and left charred scars as mementos. Tongues of fire had reached the chapel fence and threatened destruction to all within its confines — but the fire had not entered the chapel ground."
No one ever found a cause for the disaster. They speculated that it was sparked from hunters' camp fires, fires used by loggers or those building a railway, lightning, or even fragments from the comet Biela which disintegrated in 1851 and is thought to have rained down meteors for years afterwards (though such fragments are usually cold by the time they hit ground). Whatever its cause, a key lesson: the only sanctuary then and in times to come is under Mary's mantle.
There is this added mystery: October 8, 1871 — date of the Wisconsin catastrophe — was also the day of the Great Chicago Fire.
Following an accident in which she was thrown from a wagon on her way to a Mass in Champion, Sister Adele experienced continual physical suffering from that point until her death. Adele soon passed more stewardship duties of the chapel and school to Sister Maggie Allard. After the death of Sister Maggie in February of 1890, an ailing Sister Adele placed the management of the home to Sister Marie Madeleine, a young woman who had joined Sister Adele's group in 1888. This decision discouraged the older members, causing more than half of them to leave at one time. Six years later, Adele's group of sisters dwindled to three, and the school greatly diminished in numbers. Near the time of Sister Adele's death, Sister Pauline met with her mentor one last time.
"We went into the chapel and prayed. I can still see the calm, serene and happy look on the face of the good sister as if a light from Heaven had shone upon her."
On July 5, 1896, Sister Adele Brise uttered her last words: "I rejoiced in what was said to me. We shall go into the house of the Lord." She died that day and was laid to rest near the chapel. A simple tombstone bears the following in French: "Sacred Cross, under thy shadow I rest and hope. Sister Marie Adele Joseph Brise, who died on July 5, 1896, at the age of 66."
Sister Pauline remembered her friend and teacher, Sister Adele, in this excerpt from a letter she wrote 11 years after Adele's death: "Dear Sister Adele had a great deal to suffer from some misunderstandings, especially from the clergy, but all this was to make her feel that this is not our true home, and she took it in good faith. I never heard her say an unkind word against them. She was always charitable and obedient. Her work prospered, and she did a great deal of good… Dear Sister Adele, from your happy home above, remember us."
More than a hundred years after her death, lay and religious catechists continue in the path of Sister Adele Brise in continuing her mission to instill Christian principles of living faith and worship in our Catholic youth. Because of her steadfast obedience to the commission of Our Blessed Mother and her unwavering confidence in God, Sister Adele's has been, is, and always will be a wonderful example to all religious education instructors of the tremendous good that can be done when zeal for Christ's teachings is extended to those who care about fostering the growth of strong Catholic families and the reinforcement of Christian principles in today's society.
Basic information on apparitions
Here are the basic guidelines that the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA has published that a Bishop uses to determine the authenticity of an apparition.
1. An apparition is an appearance of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, or one of the saints.
2. Some well-known apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary are Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico in1531; Lourdes, France in 1858; and Fatima, Portugal in 1917.
3. All true apparitions point the way to Jesus Christ. None of the messages given in true apparitions contain anything new. They repeat what God has already revealed to us through Jesus Christ.
4. Out of His care for us, God permits apparitions to remind us of the Gospel Message and draw us closer to Christ.
5. Like a good mother who reminds us of things that are important for our well-being, the Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared at times in history to remind us of elements of the Gospel for our own good and to lead us closer to Her Son, Jesus Christ.
6. The Bishop of a diocese (not the Holy See nor the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops) is responsible for judging the authenticity of apparitions that are said to have occurred in his diocese.
7. Not all alleged apparitions are given Church approval.
8. No one can prove the supernatural. The Church judges apparitions on the basis of their consistency with Sacred Scripture. Sacred tradition and the teachings of the Church, the subsequent spiritual benefits in the lives of people, and whether there is anything in the life of the seer that detracts from the credibility of the account.
9. Over the decades, the Bishops of Green Bay, Wisconsin, have supported the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help as a place of prayer and pilgrimage, but no formal declaration had been made regarding the Apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Adele Brise.
10. On January 9, 2009, Bishop Ricken opened a formal investigation into the apparition and appointed a team of experts to study the matter.
11. On December 8, 2010, Bishop Ricken declared with moral certainty that the events, apparitions and locutions given to Adele Brise in October of 1859 do exhibit the substance of supernatural character, and approved these apparitions as worthy of belief (although not obligatory) by the Christian faithful.