Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, Champion, WI
We stumbled upon this amazing story while visiting and researching for our Peshtigo Fire page. We were so taken and so curious about what happened here that we made a special trip back to the Shrine to check it out for ourselves. We were not disappointed. What happened here on the night of the fire can only be described as a miracle.
The Shrine and Peshtigo are 40 miles apart across the Bay. They had nothing to do with each other until their fates intertwined for the one and only time on the night of the fire. The town of Champion is a small farming community just northeast of Green Bay in Brown County. In the mid-1800's, it was called Robinsonville. This heavily forested peninsula on the eastern side of the Bay was home to a large enclave of Belgian immigrants and the small towns that supported them.
It was through these forests that a young lady named Adele Brise was walking on October 8, 1859. Adele was born in Belgium on January 30, 1831 and had emigrated to Wisconsin with her parents in 1855. Her father bought a 240 acre plot two miles from where the Shrine now stands and the family got to work.
As a little girl, she was in an accident with liquid lye that cost her the sight in her right eye and caused some permanent disfigurement. Raised a Catholic, Adele was deeply religious and actively involved in the church. This was no easy matter in America.
The Belgian community had not prospered like they hoped. Unlike their native country, Wisconsin was a wild and harsh land. Their primary vocation - lumbering - was not lucrative. As a result, the whole community was poor. Many people were lost to illness and the elements. Yet they still kept coming by the thousands.
In this battle for survival, their religion faded in importance. The nearest church was miles away and the parish at Green Bay only had one priest, Father Perrodin. He was becoming increasingly concerned that thousands of immigrants were moving into the area with no one to minister to them. In a letter to a fellow priest, he said the adults had become indifferent to their faith and the children were being raised as non-believers. That was about to change.
On that October Saturday morning, Adele was by herself on a family chore. Walking along a trail through a heavily wooded area, she came upon a woman standing astride the trail between a maple tree and a hemlock tree. The woman was dressed in white and seemed to have a ghostly floating appearance. Their eyes met but nothing was said. Then the apparition vanished, leaving a wisp of mist and a terrified Adele. She told her parents, who said there must be a logical explanation for it.
The next day, Sunday, October 9 it happened again. This time Adele was with her sister and a neighbor on their way to church. The same woman appeared in the same place and Adele was the only one who could see her. Her companions could only watch in shock as Adele started crying and fretting about "that woman." They were certain she had seen something, but had no idea what.
That same day, on the way home, the woman appeared again for the third and final time. Again, only Adele could see her. This time, the woman spoke. She said she was the "Queen of Heaven." This is a title used by Catholics for the Blessed Virgin Mary and Adele prostrated herself on the ground. Her companions did too, even though they could see or hear nothing.
Mary told Adele that the people were straying and needed to re-affirm their faith. In particular, the children needed to be taught the ways of the church and Adele was to teach them. If the people didn't return to the flock, Mary said Her Son might punish them. The Queen of Heaven told Adele that she would protect her and provide for her always, then faded away. Thus began the 40 year mission of Marie Adele Joseph Brise as Sister Adele. From that day until the day of her death on July 5, 1896, she completely devoted herself to the work she believed she had been called to do by the the Blessed Virgin Mary in the forests of Wisconsin.
It started simply enough. She belonged to no order. She never took any vows. With her calling and the support of her priest and family, she began her work. For the next seven years, dressed in a long black serge gown, cloak and stiff bonnet, Sister Adele went from house to house asking if she could provide any help. In return, she sought only to pray with the children. People came to trust her sincerity and kind manner. She became a familiar figure and traveled everywhere along the trails through the bear and wolf-infested woods, often on foot. Her work took her all over the peninsula in all kinds of weather. When children had been schooled on the ways of the church, she would arrange for a priest to administer their First Communion.
Word quickly spread about her work and the Marian apparition that inspired it. Soon, people were making pilgrimages to the spot where it happened. A series of chapels were built there starting in 1859. The first one was a small outdoor oratory built by her father. In 1861, the community built a 20x 40 foot log chapel with rough hewn planks for pews.
In 1865, the Belgian colony got its own priest. He encouraged Sister Adele to build a chapel and a school so the children could come to her. By this time, the physical effects of her work were beginning to tell and there were several new Sisters who had joined her so a convent was also included in the plan.
The Sisters began to raise money for the site and left the immediate area to appeal for charity from more affluent areas in Green Bay and Milwaukee. Sister Adele spoke no English, only French, so she carried a letter of introduction from the priest and took along an interpreter on these journeys.
The plan became reality starting in 1867. By 1869, on the current site, there was a new boarding school, a convent and a new chapel. It was all run through charity and there were many lean times. But just as the Blessed Mother had promised, they always seemed to have what they needed when they needed it most. The school was St. Mary's Academy. The convent was for the Sisters of Saint Francis of Assisi, which is what Sister Adele called their order. The chapel was named "Notre Dame de Bons Secours" which is French for "Our Lady of Good Help."
The school year ended in early July each year and 1871 was no different. What was different about 1871 is that the entire north woods on both sides of the Bay had turned into a powder keg. Severe drought, indiscriminate use of fire and various industrial / lumbering / farm practices all combined to create a volatile environment just right for an inferno. By late September, small fires burned everywhere. The air was filled with dense smoke. White ash and hot coals showered the land. Needles and leaves falling from stressed trees carpeted the ground. This witch's brew was just waiting for the right spark to set it off and everyone knew it. On Sunday night, October 8, 1871 - 12 years to the day after the first apparition - the spark and the disaster they had been dreading arrived.
The Peshtigo Fire burned from southwest to northeast up both sides of the Bay. It was a wildfire of immense proportions with hurricane force winds and 2,000 degree temperatures. Nothing in its path survived and it was headed right for Our Lady of Good Help.
Unable to fight it and with no hope of outrunning it, the people headed for the only place they could think of - the church. The compound was now about five acres in size and enclosed by a white picket fence. No one knows how many people eventually crowded in but it was a large number. They brought their livestock with them and there were reports that forest animals were also inside the fence.
With the fire bearing down on them, Sister Adele led them in prayer. They said the Rosary. They kneeled in prayer at the altar. They walked around the chapel in a processional with a statue of Mary lifted high and pleaded for salvation. Soon the fire was all around them. Flames arched over the compound. People watched nearby farms explode in flames. The outside of the picket fence was charred black. Before this night was over, the heat, the flames, the smoke, the poisoned air and the flying debris would destroy over one million acres (2400 square miles) of old growth forest, kill 2500 people and incinerate at least a dozen communities. It was the largest and deadliest fire in American history - before or since - but the Chapel of Our Lady of Good Help was spared.
Morning brought a scene of total devastation as far as the eye could see. It took years for the region to recover and some of the destroyed communities never re-built. In the middle of it was Our Lady of Good Help, a green oasis in a desert of destruction. Everyone and everything inside the fence were alive, uninjured and undamaged. If the people of the Belgian colony ever had any doubts that the Virgin Mary had appeared to Adele, provided for her and protected her, there were none now.
The story of the great fire became part of the local lore and quickly spread. Our Lady of Good Help continued to teach and minister to the people. It also continued to expand. A new brick chapel was built in 1880. To accommodate its size, the two trees marking the spot where Mary appeared to Adele - the maple and the hemlock - had to be cut down. The altar of the new sanctuary was placed over the spot. A new school and convent were built in 1885 and re-modeled in 1933. They are still there although the school closed long ago.
The current church was built in 1941. When the old one was torn down, the stumps of the two trees were uncovered underneath. A separate basement level chapel called the Crypt was constructed and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The altar for that chapel sits directly over the two tree stumps. On the altar is a statue of Mary sent from France in 1907. The altar and the statue combined replicate the location and position of the apparitions that Sister Adele saw. Everyday, people come here to kneel at the altar and offer their prayers and petitions to the Queen of Heaven.
Sister Adele died in 1896 at the age of 65 and is buried near the entrance to the Crypt. The remaining three sisters carried on their work for several more years but were unable to keep up with everything. At the behest of the Bishop of Green Bay, the Sisters of St. Francis Bay Settlement took over in 1902. Two of the remaining sisters joined the new order. One returned to private life. The Order of Saint Francis staffed and took care of Our Lady of Good Help until 1992. It is now run by the Diocese of Green Bay.
Shortly after the fire, Father Peter Pernin, from the church at Peshtigo, visited Our Lady of Good Help and talked with Sister Adele. Father Pernin was a hero for his work before, during and after the disaster. When he left, he wrote that there was strong evidence of a Marian apparition but that since there had been no "official ecclesiastical judgment" he would not comment further.
That was always the dilemma for Our Lady of Good Help. Its story and that of Sister Adele were ingrained in the local culture and well known to the faithful, who visited from far and wide. But without that "official ecclesiastical judgment" it was little more than an urban legend. The Catholic Church never took a position on the validity of Sister Adele's apparition encounters - until now.
In 2009, the Diocese of Green Bay launched an official investigation reviewing the facts and circumstances of Adele Brise's forest encounters with the Virgin Mary. On December 8, 2010 a special mass was held on-site for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. During the mass Bishop David Ricken announced that the Marian apparitions seen there in 1859 were "worthy of belief." This article in the Green Bay Press Gazette goes into more detail and has links to additional resources. There are also some good amplifying articles in the December archives of the National Catholic Register.
This is the only site so recognized in the United States and one of only 15 in the world. It puts Champion, Wisconsin in the same category as Fatima, Portugal, which is arguably the most well-known apparition site. Information about all Marian apparition sites can be found on this web page.
You can say or believe what you want about the Catholic faith, their devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the whole concept of apparitions. However, there is no denying what happened at Our Lady of Good Help the night of the firestorm. The facts are indisputable and are backed up by eye witness accounts, written records and physical evidence. A piece of the charred fence is displayed at the Peshtigo Fire Museum, which is how we originally found out about all this. I'm not Catholic, but I am a Christian and I see no other explanation for what happened other than divine intervention. As for the apparitions, count me as a believer. The reader can draw their own conclusions.
The GPS coordinates for the Shrine are N44.590637 W87.773746. Click on the coordinates for an interactive hybrid Google map and satellite view.
The best place to start your visit is the Shrine's website. It has hours, services and directions.
We visited in early November 2010. Not knowing what to expect, we thought it would be some ornate, estate-looking place well back from the road. It's not. The Shrine compound is compact and unpretentious. It sits just off of county road K on a narrow strip of land sandwiched between two farms. It has a gravel parking lot and no full time ordained clergy.
We drove from the Twin Cities specifically to gather information about the history and events that occurred here. In the small gift shop, we talked for quite a while with a knowledgeable young lady working there and bought some material to take with us. Next to the gift shop, there's a small but informative historical display which we went over thoroughly. Those three sources gave us a good start on our research.
The grounds and buildings are open and we spent time exploring everything. Information placards are placed at key spots. Even though it was a cold, blustery day, there was a steady stream of people praying at the altar in the Crypt.
If you can't visit, the Shrine has produced a DVD with the whole story. Here's a link to the trailer.
The Wisconsin peninsula country, which includes Brown, Kewaunee and Door counties, is one of our favorite areas. We go there whenever we can, even if it's just for a day. It's a great place to do the things we like - explore, hike, bike, eat and geocache. In fact, #6 on our Top 10 list of cool geocaches we've found is from a cave on the Door Bluff Headlands. Although it gets busy in peak season, there isn't the craziness associated with other high visibility vacation areas. We like things off the beaten path and the peninsula definitely qualifies. That may be about to change.
Apparition sites are high draw areas. At Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal, thousands of people visit year round with as many as one million on major holy days. An entire infrastructure of roads, lodging, food distribution and medical services exists simply to support the Fatima pilgrimages.
In an article dated December 10, 2010, the Green Bay Press Gazette reported that the Shrine had been inundated with phone calls and emails asking about services, prayers and pilgrimages. This was one day after the formal announcement by the Bishop.
It's hard to envision one million people heading to rural Wisconsin on a religious pilgrimage, but there can be little doubt that the number of visitors is going to increase - perhaps dramatically. When asked by a reporter about that possibility, a diocesan official said "We will let the Blessed Virgin Mary worry about the publicity."
I expect there's probably some plans being made. I'm reminded of the line from the movie Field of Dreams - "If you build it, they will come."
Update 11/23/2011. Since the Bishop's declaration on December 8, 2010, the number of visitors to the shrine has exploded. They are seeing 500-800 per day and more on special occasions. Two full time priests have been assigned here and 100 volunteers trained. Rest rooms and other facilities are being constructed.
Dramatic change is also in stock for the little farm town of Champion. Several Bed&Breakfasts are being developed. Hotels are full for miles around. You can read more in this article from the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
God Bless...Boris and Natasha