First U.S. Visit of the Virgin Mary Confirmed in Wisconsin

It is not yet spring in snow-covered rural Wisconsin. About twenty miles outside of Green Bay and over a mile from even the smallest town, a tiny sign at a remote intersection points visitors toward Chapel Drive, site of the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, where a young Belgian woman experienced apparitions of the Virgin Mary more than 150 years ago.

Behind the chapel and small gift shop, visitors can tramp through the snow to a grotto and Stations of the Cross, passing on their way the burial place of Adele Brise, the French-speaking Belgian immigrant who saw and spoke with the Virgin Mary in 1859.

In the linoleum-floored crypt, flyers and pamphlets explain the history of the shrine. A three-ring binder explains the site’s fundraising needs to visitors on scuffed-up laminated pages. If it weren’t for a port-a-john next to the parking lot, the whole scene in this snow-covered countryside could be taking place in the 1950s, or even the 1880s, when the current chapel was first built.

The Virgin Mary’s First Visit to the U.S.

All this peace and quiet is about to disappear. On December 8, 2010, Bishop David L. Ricken of the Diocese of Green Bay concluded a two-year investigation into the validity of the apparitions at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, making the Wisconsin site the 13th Marian apparition site in the world to be formally recognized since the Vatican established a new approval process in 1978. Although the site has attracted a steady trickle of pilgrims since the 1860s, the Bishop’s announcement brings international recognition to an extremely obscure place. It is the only approved site of a Marian apparition in the U.S., and one of only two in North America—the other being the world-famous Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico.

The declaration from the Diocese of Green Bay comes at a difficult time for US Catholics. Many are frustrated beyond repair with continuing sex abuse scandals. A growing financial crisis in the Church has led to the closing of both schools and parish churches; tough choices for religious leaders grappling to maintain their credibility with parishioners.

Bishop Ricken, the man responsible for convening a panel of Virgin Mary experts, is not far removed from scandal himself: when he came to Green Bay in 2008, he replaced a bishop who was accused of destroying files that might incriminate priests in sex abuse cases. Two lawsuits are still pending against the Diocese of Green Bay. Casting a shadow almost long enough to reach Champion, the nearby Archdiocese of Milwaukee filed for bankruptcy in early 2011 after spending over $29 million addressing abuse claims over two decades. Meanwhile, the caretakers at the Shrine of our Lady of Good Help are trying to fundraise for basic amenities—a bathroom here, a wheelchair ramp there, and a new parking lot—before the site starts drawing pilgrims in droves. Currently, the shrine doesn’t even have its own priest or offer a mass on Sundays.

To local adherents, the approval just acknowledges a fact that has long been known to them: this site is a healing and holy place, marked with the presence of the Blessed Mother. In December, Bishop Ricken told the New York Times that the site’s approval is not connected in any way to the diocese’s various crises—but admitted that he does hope that the shrine will be a hopeful light. “People have a hunger for the spiritual, and right here in our backyard was a source to meet that need,” he says.

Gather the Children

Karen Tipps, full-time caretaker at the shrine, adds: “A lot of people say well, why do you think it happened now? Well, every apparition is meant for its certain time in history.” According to the story, the Holy Mother asked Brise to “Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation.” The message about educating the children, she says, is especially timely:

“For the last four or five years the bishops have been wracking their brains during the bishops’ conferences on the crisis we have of catechesis. Our children don’t know their faith, they’re losing their faith. So you can never say, well why? There’s always a divine plan.” 

Tipps has lived at the shrine for eighteen years with her husband and son. The site is beautiful, quiet, and private. It’s just the Tipps family, plus two priests who visit during the week to conduct services. Within just a couple weeks of the December 8 announcement, Tipps says, the shrine saw an unprecedented number of people. Visitors from as far away as New Mexico wandered onto the grounds, with several walking into the Tipps’ home assuming it was a visitor center. The shrine rented a port-a-john in order to have enough bathroom space, but it was quickly blown over by winter winds. Asked if she is happy about the developments, Tipps laughs. “We’re kind of being a little bit selfish because we’re like oh, gosh, we don’t really want all these people,” she says. “But it’s a good thing for the Blessed Mother.”

Tipps’ beliefs tie her to a centuries-old tradition of folk Catholicism driven by local traditions, an aspect of the religion that the Catholic hierarchy has long made use of. For about a dozen centuries, the institution of sainthood has provided an avenue for folk traditions to insert themselves into official Catholic history. The possibility of formal recognition as a saint can motivate local communities to make a big deal out of small-time heroes; it’s often friends, family, and local priests who are the first advocates for a person’s canonization. The Vatican has supported the mainstreaming of strains of Catholicism ranging from the entire Franciscan order (St. Francis started his career as something of a controversial rogue) to veneration of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Latin America (a single goatherd saw her in the hills in 1531). The Basilica at Guadalupe is now a site that draws over 10 million visitors per year, making it the second-most visited church in the world after the Vatican.

Drawing the Line at Canine Sanctity

Of course, the process of recognizing saints, miracles, and apparitions has its own politics. In the Middle Ages the beatification of a local saint or a recognized miracle could bring attention, money, and political power to those close to the holy people in question—not to mention local businesses who profited from putting up pilgrims and selling food and wares. Then as today, approval by the Vatican involved both strict alignment with doctrine and a spotless personal record for anyone involved. Trends in official sainthood have changed over time based on who best represents the political and theological interests of the Vatican.

Still, the Catholic Church tends not to uphold stringent regulations on folk devotion. Most apparitions, miracles, and saintly types are never formally approved by anyone, and the Vatican seems to have left alone most activities that raise the local profile of Catholicism, drawing the line mainly wherever it became embarrassing not to (as when, for example, a small French parish started venerating a deceased dog, Saint Guinefort, in the 13th century. The Church discouraged it—but that’s another story).

When local parishes venerated bearded women (St. Wilgefortis) or political martyrs who killed other Christians (King Henry VI, for one), the Vatican was happy to let the festivities continue. Vatican II removed a few legendary saints from the General Roman Calendar in the 1960s, but making saints like Christopher and Valentine less official did not constitute a prohibition on their veneration.

Current examples of this hands-off approach abound. Since the 1980s, an apparition site at Medjugorje, Yugoslavia has been a source of concern at varying levels of church hierarchy, but pilgrimages to the site are neither forbidden nor rare. Although the local bishop has disputed reports of apparitions at the site, the Holy See’s stance is nearly neutral: the Vatican will not declare an official pilgrimage to Medjugorje, as that would indicate formal approval. For a hierarchy with such a rigid reputation, the Church at the institutional level approaches these local devotions with an interestingly live-and-let-live attitude. Still today, most saints who get beatified and canonized are not big-shot Mother Theresa types, but local heroes, many from past centuries. That’s why, for the most part, you’ve never heard of them.

Bishops, archbishops and the Vatican do serve as arbiters of hundreds of sightings and miracles each year, addressing and mediating a steady stream of beliefs that arise around the world. Since the creation of new criteria for Marian apparitions in 1978, hundreds of sightings have been studied, and at least 12 were formally approved as of 2008—according to most numbers (although even a simple count of “official” sites is hard to obtain), Our Lady of Good Help is the 13th. Pope Benedict XVI recently called for more moderation in approving such sites, but any new regulations did not fall into place in time to stop Bishop Ricken from pushing Adele Brise into the international spotlight. Benedict probably doesn’t have to worry about Adele: by all accounts, her claims are theologically sound and her saintly nature is incontestable.

Wisconsin’s Own Lourdes?

For a glimpse of what the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help could become look to Lourdes, France, the site of a world-famous 1858 Marian apparition. Bernadette Soubirous was a peasant girl who fit a similar profile to Wisconsin’s Adele Brise; her ongoing apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a grotto outside the small mountain village of Lourdes drew crowds just a year before Adele’s faraway apparitions. After controversy at Lourdes drew the Vatican’s attention, the Bishop of Tarbes swiftly initiated an investigation into Bernadette’s sightings. In four years the grotto was confirmed as an official holy site and a chapel was built at Bernadette’s request (or rather, at the Blessed Virgin’s request through Bernadette). Young Bernadette enjoyed regional fame until her death in 1879, and in 1933 she was canonized as a saint.

The small village of Lourdes brings in an average of five million tourists each year. The site’s success as an attraction is partially due to its pop cultural currency: a 1943 film starring Jennifer Jones, Song of Bernadette, made the saint a star in the English-speaking world. But it also has a particular theological significance: the specific wording of Bernadette’s 1858 conversations with the Virgin conveniently reinforced Pope Pius IX’s 1854 declaration of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Adele Brise’s apparition shares similar theological grounding to Bernadette’s: it is said to affirm an 1851 statement from the Bishops of the United States calling for schools in every parish. Like Bernadette, Adele was a good role model: a poor young woman whose apparitions turned her into a locally respected leader and founder of a school and convent.

It’s hard to know whether Champion, Wisconsin will draw crowds with a story of a nun whose message was that education is good and sin is bad. Pope Benedict XVI, for his part, recently asserted that the Catholic Church is in the midst of an “educational emergency,” noting that “educational work seems to have become increasingly difficult because, in a culture that too often make relativism its creed, the light of truth gets lost.” Still, Catholics are holding steady as the largest single religious group in the United States, and immigrants from Catholic countries may be pushing the numbers up. As a symbol of Catholic catechesis, and as a representative of a seemingly humbler, more educated past, Adele may have a chance to make her mark.

If she does, the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help will need some visitor accommodations—like a parking lot. It might look to Lourdes to improve its website: on the official site for the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, visitor FAQs tell you how to get to Lourdes, how to get your hands on some holy water from the grotto, and how to leave an ex-voto offering (look elsewhere for hotel bookings—there are dozens of hotels in Lourdes, all advertising their proximity in meters and yards to the grotto). If you can’t travel, stay on the website and watch the grotto all day long via a 24/7 live feed. Lourdes is keeping up in the new millennium; will Champion, with its simple message of Catholic catechesis, follow suit? Two frequently asked questions on the Lourdes webpage are telling: “How can I look at the webcam?” visitors want to know. Once they figure that out they ask, “What is the Immaculate Conception?”