With approval from Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay, Wisconsin, a chapel in the town of Champion is now the first approved Marian apparition site in the United States.
On Dec. 8, 2010 –the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception– the bishop decreed with “moral certainty” that the Virgin Mary had indeed appeared to a young Belgian immigrant woman, Adele Brise, on three occasions in October of 1859.
Since 1861, the site of those apparitions has been home to a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary under her title “Our Lady of Good Help.” Following a two-year investigation of the alleged apparitions, Bishop Ricken proclaimed them “worthy of belief,” and confirmed his diocese's official recognition of the popular shrine.
During each of those three apparitions, a lady in shining white clothes appeared to Adele. The third time, she identified herself as “the Queen of Heaven who prays for the conversion of sinners.”
“I wish you to do the same,” she told the 28-year-old woman, who had intended to become a nun before coming to America. Adele and her family lived on a small homestead in Wisconsin, which had become a U.S. state only 11 years earlier.
The Virgin Mary also gave her a mission of evangelism and catechesis: “Gather the children in this wild country, and teach them what they should know for salvation … Go and fear nothing. I will help you.”
Adele Brise went on to become a Third Order Franciscan. She traveled throughout the frontier state giving religious instruction to children and adults, striving to fulfill the heavenly mandate. Her work was especially important at a time when Wisconsin severely lacked priests, and simply attending church could involve a strenuous journey.
Near the chapel, her community of Franciscan women also established a school. When a fire ravaged the area near the apparition site in 1871, the chapel and school were the only buildings left standing, along with their convent and a surrounding area of land consecrated to the Virgin Mary.
In 1890, six years before she died, Sister Adele's adopted hometown of Robinsonville renamed itself after the Belgian town of Champion. The Franciscan sister had asked for the change, in honor of a childhood promise she had made to the Virgin Mary to enter a Belgian religious order in that region.
Bishop Ricken told CNA that Sister Adele's own life was among the most convincing testimonies to the validity of the apparition. Rather than calling attention to herself or the apparitions, she had humbly devoted the rest of her life to fulfilling the instructions she had received.
“She went all over this area, and visited the homes that were scattered far and wide,” Bishop Ricken said, recounting the sister's Franciscan spirit of humble simplicity. “She walked most of the time, and she'd spend several days with the children teaching them the catechism and talking with the parents about their faith.”
“She really had an evangelistic spirit … and lived that out, not just immediately after the message, but her whole life long.”
Bishop Ricken said the simplicity and clarity of Mary's message also testified to the truth of the apparitions. Her instructions to Sister Adele were “simple, but very much loaded with the main message of the Gospel and with the teachings of the Church.”
The bishop also recalled discovering “countless stories of answered prayers,” including reports of “what many call miracles,” among those who had visited the shrine to seeking intercession from Our Lady of Good Help.
Although the bishop's approval of the apparitions is new, his recognition of the chapel's status as a diocesan shrine simply confirms what pilgrims have implicitly understood about the sacred place for over 150 years.
Bishop Ricken explained that he has heard “story after story” of “incredible” cures and conversions – and understands that the events of October 9, 1859 are still having life-changing effects among the faithful. Like the famous French apparition site at Lourdes, the shrine in Champion has a collection of crutches that pilgrims have discarded as unnecessary after receiving healing there.
Fr. John Doefler, rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, indicated there could be an even more profound connection between the Blessed Virgin's appearance in Lourdes, and the apparition to Adele Brise. He pointed out that she had appeared to Adele Brise one year after her appearances to St. Bernadette Soubirous, and announced herself in a way that connected both events.
“In Lourdes, Mary identifies herself as the Immaculate Conception,” Fr. Doefler explained. “Here, she identifies herself as the Queen of Heaven … Between the two of them, it encompasses all of the Marian mysteries” – from the very beginning of her life, to its culmination in “the Assumption and the Coronation.”