Wisconsin Wonder: Blessed Virgin Mary appears in Champion

There’s a crisp hint of Autumn in the air when a young Adele Brise first catches sight of the mysterious figure she would soon know to be the Blessed Mother Mary. It’s October 1859.

Adele carries her bag of wheat toward the grist mill, in a wooded patch of Northern Wisconsin, when she freezes, frightened.

There, between a hemlock and maple tree stands a beautiful woman clothed in dazzling white, wearing a yellow sash and crown of stars atop her flowing golden hair, until…she’s gone.

The vision of the woman fades, and Adele all alone, continues on her way. A second encounter with the mystery woman a few days later is just as startling, compounded by the fact this figure doesn’t say a word.

On counsel from a priest, Adele is prepared for her next encounter and says to the figure: ‘In God’s name who are you and what do you want from me?’

‘I am the Queen of Heaven, who prays for the conversion of sinners,’ the woman says, ‘and I wish you to do the same.’

The Queen of Heaven—the Blessed Virgin Mary—proceeds to explain to Adele what she’s being called to do: teach the children of this wild country what they should know for their salvation, while also encouraging Adele, that she’s not going to have to do it alone:

We continue our series on the only Catholic Church-approved Marian Apparition site in the United States, and we hear how the words given to Adele can help us all. That’s to come, on Faith Full.

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The Visionary Adele Brise

Adele Brise was a Belgian immigrant who settled with her family in rural Northern Wisconsin at a time of challenge for Catholic evangelism in the countryside. There missionary priests serving settlements in the area, but there are unique linguistic and cultural barriers to serve an immigrant population.

In our last episode gearing up for this pilgrimage our first guide, Fr. Carlos, described the apparition site as sitting between dairy farms. But in the mid-19th century it’s wooded territory.

According to a prayer book for pilgrims to Champion, Wisconsin by Fr. Edward Looney, Adele Brise was known as a pious girl, blinded in one eye at a young age. She loved God and the Blessed Mother Mary, and promised Mary she would join a religious order to teach the faith to children abroad.

But then she and her family immigrate to the U.S. before she can become a nun in Belgium.

So this is the backdrop to a string of miracles at Champion, and the apparition of Mary, including protection from a massive wildfire.

This is considered a private revelation meaning faithful Catholics don’t have to believe in it, but the Church has vetted what happened at Champion as not being contrary to the faith, with the local Bishop saying it is “worthy of belief.” The Guadalupe, Fatima, and Lourdes apparition sites are also considered private revelations.

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Fr. Edward Looney in August 2021. (Photo: Tony Ganzer)

“The Champion Apparition really isn’t well known and that is a fact,” said Father Edward Looney, pastor of Saint Francis & Saint Mary Parish Brussels, and Saint Peter & Saint Hubert Parish Rosiere/Lincoln. He’s also an author, podcaster, host of ‘How They Love Mary’ and ‘Cup of Saint Joe, and author of that pilgrim prayer book.

“I go lots of different places and I talk about it and they’re like what are you talking about? There’s a Marian apparition in the United States? And I say yes it’s in Champion, Wisconsin, it took place in 1859, and was recently approved in 2010 by the bishop of the diocese, Bishop David Ricken,” he said.

Fr. Edward says with the apparition at Fatima, there was the Miracle of the Sun, witnessed by tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people, which led news to spread fast.

At Lourdes, there are healings and a spring of water that wasn’t previously there, uncovered by St. Bernadette, also launching the apparition into wider consciousness.

In the case of the Champion apparition in 1859, no mass media are spreading the news.

“You just have a simple Belgian immigrant who’s walking along a nature trail and sees the Blessed Mother,” Fr. Edward said. “She tells her family, she tells her priest. It seems more of a local apparition, and in fact it was kind of speaking to what was going on in the area at the time that there was a lack of the practice of the faith on the part of the immigrants, and so it seems like Mary came to renew the faith of the area by her apparition.”

Once the local Bishop approved the apparition as “worthy of belief,” awareness of Champion began to spread more widely, and pilgrims began to seek out the message of the Blessed Mother Mary in larger numbers.

“It never was condemned or anything like that. It always received the favor of the local bishop. He would come often to the chapel, and especially in the 1900s after the Visionary dies, the Church enjoyed its time at the shrine. There there was even a nuncio I think, a Belgian Nuncio one time came to the shrine at Champion, so the Church always looked at it, recognized it in an unofficial way, but never in an official way,” Fr. Edward said.

“Now you would have thought in 1871 there’s this fire that breaks out in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, and you know they say that the fire came across the Bay and began to burn in that area, and Adele takes a statue and processes with all the faithful there, and you would have thought that would have been front page news story. You know fire happens in Wisconsin, shrine to Blessed Mother, chapel of Blessed Mother and nuns spared, or something. But it’s overshadowed. And why is it overshadowed? Because the very same day the Chicago Fire takes place.”

Peshtigo and the quasi-miracle of the fire

Part of the Peshtigo fire museum (Photo: Tony Ganzer)

Peshtigo, Wisconsin is nearly an hour north of Green Bay, and the apparition site near Green Bay. The fire museum in Peshtigo records the devastation of this fire, burning 1.2 million acres.

A museum volunteer says the town was known internationally for its woodenware products, but the manufacturing created large amounts of sawdust that became the basis of the town’s roads.

Outside the museum is a cemetery with historical markers telling in narrative form some of the tragedy suffered by these people because of the fire.

There’s also a mass grave. It’s a place that really gives pause.

“Father Peter Pernin, he wrote a book called the Finger of God,” Fr. Edward said, talking about the Peshtigo fire eventually reaching the Shrine site at Champion. “It’s not clear to me if he actually went there and saw this or if this is just oral record and he heard it and so he repeated it, but what he described about the Champion Shrine was that it’s shown out like an emerald island amid a sea of ash, and so everything else had been burned, and you know the historical record says that the outsides were charred but not the inside. So you know it really was the protection of Mary’s prayers, her mantle protecting this holy spot.”

Another ‘miracle’ during this fire, along with the Champion Shrine site being an emerald isle in a sea of ash was the tabernacle of the local church being untouched. The tabernacle is the chamber which holds the Blessed Sacrament, which Catholics believe becomes Jesus through the celebration of Mass.

The priest ran to secure the tabernacle during the fire, but lost track of it somehow. It was found in pristine condition after the fire burned away.

The Peshtigo tabernacle, untouched by the great fire. (Photo: Tony Ganzer)

The Sacraments are keys to the Catholic faith, and Fr. Edward Looney says they were central to the apparitions to Adele Brise as well.

“In a sense it was a personal apparition, it gave a mission to Adele: gather the children, teach them what they need to know for salvation. Mary specifically addresses personal questions: why are you standing here in idleness while your companions are working in the vineyard of my Son? So it is a very personal call of the Blessed Mother, but I think that when Mary speaks we should be attentive to what she’s saying. We want to listen to the words of the Blessed Mother,” he said.

“She tells Adele you know go to Mass receive Holy Communion, offer your Communion for the conversion of sinners. Well every Mass we go to now we can offer our Communion for the conversion of sinners. Make a general confession. Well we’re all in need of God’s mercy. Blessed are those who believe without seeing–that Mary quotes the words of her Son, and those words really I think are an affirmation to all the pilgrims that go there, that you haven’t seen Mary here. You’ve heard the story, you believe it to be true, and so you go.”

“Why are you standing here in idleness…or you know, why delay to tomorrow, when we can do it today? And that’s what I think Mary’s saying to Adele: you’ve waited four years to be a sister, why aren’t you doing this yet? Gather the children, teach them what they need to know for salvation–this is the heart of the message of catechesis, of wanting people to know the faith. So yeah these are some of the lessons that Mary taught there and sure lived by Adele, but lived by her companions, lived by all of us who still hear it today,” he said.

Finding Our Lady of Good Help

Fr. Edward traveled to Belgium as part of his research into Adele Brise, and specifically her devotion to Our Lady of Good Help.

“It’s very peculiar that the shrine is called that because Mary appears and she says I’m the Queen of Heaven who prays for the conversion of sinners, it’s not the revealed name of the Blessed Mother,” he said. “So I wanted to know more. I wanted to learn more about what we call Notre Dame de Bon Secour. What I didn’t know was that Adele had a devotion to Mary under the title. It says in the historical book well she wanted that name inscribed above the door of the church. So she had a devotion, so I wanted to find it, and I found a few basilicas to Notre Dame de Bon Secour and trying to trace the history of it.”

Adele’s family left Belgium for what many would call the American dream, with ample supply of land, and a way to make a living. But in an untamed, or at least very rural, area of northern Wisconsin, there was a bit of a vacuum for the faithful. There aren’t many priests who can help cope with the unique cultural and linguistic challenges of ministering to a Belgian immigrant community.

“Then you have Mary appear and say gather the children, teach them what they need to know for salvation. Well this is the kind of the the re-catechesis of the people, you know Mary talks about the sacraments, and isn’t it interesting that Adele is sent out as a missionary,” Fr. Edward said.

“Gather the children teach them what they need to know, she did that, she went to all these different places, and she traveled within a 50 mile radius. She knocked on doors, did household work, she wanted to teach the kids anything to fulfill that mission that she received, but before she’s sent out though Mary says pray for the conversion of sinners, offer your Communion for that intention. So as she goes on on her missionary work it’s almost as if she’s anticipating praying already in advance for those whom she was going to work for their conversion,” he said. “It’s kind of a beautiful little message there within Adele’s life and within the message of Mary herself.”

Fr. Edward said one part of the apparition may be seen by some as controversial, dealing with chastisement of the faithful.

“[Mary] says if they do not convert and do penance my Son will be obliged to punish them. But what I always point out there is that that’s a conditional statement. If they don’t, then there will be punishment. It’s the same thing in Fatima, you know pray the rosary every day so that not a greater war will ever take place again. And so if you don’t listen well then something happens, so I think that we take that to heart then well if they do not convert well do your best to convert your life”

“But there’s a great promise at the end of Mary’s message, go and fear nothing for I will help you,” he continued. “For us daily, call upon the help of Mary. We call her in Catholic theology the Mediatrix of Grace, and so ask for her prayers, ask for her intercession, ask for her to make your pleas known before God so that you might receive grace through her hands. She wants to help us, that’s what she promises, I will help you. And I think that, don’t forget that ,and that you know and all the battles we face if we realize Heaven is with us, well then it makes the makes the battle a little easier to endure, I suppose.”

The Shrine to Our Lady of Good Help

The lower chapel at Champion (Photo: Tony Ganzer)

The Shrine at Champion is billed as a peaceful place, and it fits that bill. There are so many prayerful places indoors and outside meant to give pilgrims many options to connect with their faith.

The grave of Adele Brise is near to the lower-level chapel on the site of the original apparition of Mary.

It’s a place where you can consider all of the complicated things in your life, and then try to get back to the relatively straight-forward teachings of Jesus Christ, and consider how those were expressed by Mary in the apparition.

“One of the things I love about the messages of Our Lady to Adele is the simplicity of them, and the fact that yes they were given to Adele, but there’s a universal appeal if you will to all Catholics who would listen to them,” said Fr. John Broussard of the Fathers of Mercy, who is the rector of the Champion Shrine. “The first thing that she told her to do was teach the children how to sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross. I mean such a beautiful simple thing to spread and so much theology is contained just in that you know the idea that we worship the Trinity, and that the second person of that Trinity is the is our Savior who died on the cross for us.”

“It’s a call back to basics, but probably even more fundamentally than that it’s a call to faith,” he continued. “It’s a call to belief, specifically Catholic belief, and I think now more than ever that’s a universal call that all Christians can relate to.”

Fr. John Broussard, rector of the Shrine at Champion. (Photo: Tony Ganzer)

Rural Wisconsin in the 19th century with a lack of priests and language barriers with the immigrant population could maybe be applied to our modern world, with many people leaving the faith and secular culture and concerns become ever taller hurdles.

“Especially in our time of today and the culture that we live in I think you definitely see that attack on the faith,” Fr. John said. “People are feeling more and more distant from their faith and one of the things that people say that they get most when they come here is just a sense of peace. They’re they’re out in the world, there’s so much noise in the world, there’s so many things that pull them away from God. This is an opportunity to come and sort of focus in on those higher realities, those spiritual truths that really matter. So that I think the parallels are not only there, but intended by Our Lady.”

It can seem like a tense time in the United States, but also in the Church, with strong political issues or ideological issues contributing in many people to feelings of isolation and polarization.

But Fr. John agrees that the lessons of Champion, Wisconsin can help the faithful return to the core of the faith, keeping God at the center.

He pointed to Our Lady telling Adele to teach the children how to approach the sacrements.

“It’s not teach the children the theology of their sacraments, right? She says teach the children how to approach the sacraments, and I think that one of the things that she meant by that was teach the the disposition, teach the overall sense of the faith in which we recognize that there are certain things that are higher realities or certain truths that are are more important than others,” he said, saying the recent coronavirus pandemic may have shown the weakness of our faith.

“We we turn away from God in so many instances. I think that that was an important realization for us and making Our Lady’s message to Adele all the more relevant. Teach the children how to approach the sacraments, well that’s going to mean approaching the sacraments with great faith, great belief, that I believe that these are the instruments of my salvation and they’re more important than anything that I could go through or suffer or experience here on this earth.”

Making up ground

There were modern headwinds to the faith even before the pandemic hit, and once it did, churches shut down. Many people took advantage of digital offerings, but it’s not the same as as going to Mass every week and and taking Communion and celebrating.

So as the pandemic begins to stabilize, it can feel like the Church needs to make up ground and then some, with the recognition, Fr. John said, that God brings good out of evil.

“What I would encourage anyone who is you know looking to re-engage in their faith would be number one take from this last these last 18 months or so that we’ve been all suffering through this pandemic to take time to do that that reevaluation of my own faith life,” he said. “Did I take my faith for granted? You know there’s nothing like having being forced away from it to actually realize how important it was to you so take that opportunity to say did I really appreciate the Eucharist like I should have? Did I really appreciate my faith as I should have? And the great opportunities and peace and direction that it offered to me and and then now with that reinvigoration of that desire to exercise my faith more fully. Go to frequent confession.”

The Shrine made the Sacrament of Reconciliation available throughout the pandemic, even when Mass was halted. Fr. John said providing continued access and connection to the sacraments was important.

“Come back to Mass with that that understanding of the higher realities that we’re all being called to just like Our Lady said to Adele, you know she she told her teach the children of this wild country what they need to know for salvation. This wild country is the world right you know this it’s this life that we experience it’s filled with peril but if we know what we need for salvation, namely Jesus and the sacraments in his Church, then we will find peace even in the midst of that,” he said.

One of the recurring themes in our series about Champion has been that a pilgrimage can be done anywhere. You can make an intentional act to come to Christ and to pray.

“Really what it is it’s an external representation of what should be internal realities. So if I am feeling that call from Christ to go closer to Him stepping out and actually walking to a church or in some form of a pilgrimage is an external manifestation of that, but it really should reflect what’s going on interiorly,” Fr. John said. “Now places like [Champion] offer sort of I guess you could say some some concentrated devotionals that you could pursue by you know coming specifically for you know learning of the apparition and the history and things like that. That can be helpful in terms of boosting and strengthening your faith, but you’re absolutely right a pilgrimage it starts here, and then it’s expressed in an external way.”

A final thought from Fr. John

“The shrine has always been as we said a place of peace, but it’s also a place of healing,” Fr. John said in closing. “People who come here they experience spiritual healing and yes sometimes physical healing. You know they we’ve had people they’ve received favors of freedom from cancer, you know freedom from even emotional or mental struggles, you know they’ve come here and really experienced that that presence of God and all of that is a result of faith all of that is a result of people stepping out.”

Just like the woman who reached out for our Lord the tassel of His cloak, right you know if only I could touch the tassel of the cloak and the Lord actually felt that power come from Him. I think that’s what people experience here, they experience that power kind of sort of come forth from God by making the effort to come here and to experience that, and to express that.”

“Never underestimate the the effect that expressing that internal intention of your faith can have on you and on those around you,” he added. “If you’re ever considering making that pilgrimage it’s worth it.”

Our next episode will have a little more from Father Edward Looney about roadside chapels and places to pray.

Fr. Edward: “The roadside chapels are kind of this European devotion and the idea was if you can’t go to church every day, well you could stop here and pray. If you’re passing by, well why not just stop and say Hail Mary. It was really the faith that was the devotion of the people.”

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