Wisconsin Wonder: Wayside chapels and everyday pilgrims

Standing on the shore of a mountain lake at sunrise, you may not think you’re necessarily on a pilgrimage, but then you’re drawn toward a prayerful moment. You gaze into the raspberry and amber skies, as the lapping waves try to sing you back to sleep.

But you’re called to be present and aware of the awe.

Or maybe you hike toward an Alpine peak when you’re serenaded by birdsong; nature’s hallelujah. Again you’re very present in the moment; thankful and introspective, like a pilgrim. And then on the trail you literally see Christ on the cross.

A traveler, a pilgrim, before you thought to install a wayside chapel—a small, wooden structure to draw you even further toward God. These things are common in Europe, and in Wisconsin chapels created by European immigrants still pepper the countryside.

Today we round out our series on the Marian Apparition site in Champion, Wisconsin with a few more thoughts on making pilgrimages wherever you are. You don’t have to go far to travel deeply in prayer. Sometimes you just need to look closely around you and decide to spiritually get away.

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The Everyday Pilgrim

In our last two episodes we had a great visit to the only Catholic Church-approved apparition site in the US. And in speaking with people for those episodes we kept hearing this idea that the pilgrimages are amazing experiences, but you shouldn’t be discouraged if you can’t go long distances.

A pilgrimage starts in yourself.

We heard that from Fr. Carlos Esparza: “Even for those who don’t can’t make it to Wisconsin, you can show that act of devotion, the act of prayer, the act of consent of faith of inviting Mary to help you; inviting Mary to walk with you, and having her son Jesus walk with you in your own home, in your own neighborhood,” he said.

“People make pilgrimages every day, whether it’s just visiting the local churches in their diocese, you’re going to Mass there on a different Sunday, or sometimes people make the walks you know if it’s a downtown area, and they can walk the two or three churches and say a little prayer at each church, so there’s different ways you can do that pilgrimage.”

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

We also heard something similar from Fr. John Broussard, Rector of the Champion Shrine: “Really what it is 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. So you’re absolutely right, you know if just, just taking the time to go to church, to your parish to make that that effort; that external effort of expressing your love for God and your desire to to know him more intimately, that would be wonderful.”

I’ve really been trying to keep my eyes open for opportunities to turn everyday moments into mini-pilgrimages.

Sometimes I’ll go for a run, and I’ll notice statues of the Virgin Mary in people’s gardens. I might see four or five statues on a run, and if I say a Hail Mary at each, then I’ve prayed half a decade of the Rosary.

You may remember our episode about the incorrupt heart of St. Jean Vianney visiting Ohio, and how so many faithful Catholics chose to pile into church on a Tuesday to pray together and see this relic.

Fr. Stephen Dominic Hayes in that episode said there was something about prayerful acts that engage all of our senses…

Fr. Stephen Dominic Hayes, O.P. (Photo: Tony Ganzer)

“You know in one sense, when you come to a relic like this it may seem that it hasn’t mattered to you before you actually experience it, but it does change you: all of the sudden you have a new memory in the mind, all of the sudden we have a new sensory experience, a vision, or a touch,” he said.

“And this enrichens, and deepens, and strengthens our own spiritual life in terms of commitment and purpose. And in a way all those things that are part of the life of the Church–and the relics are part of it, but pilgrimages, and Holy Water, and one’s experience of religious services and devotions–there’s layer and layer of depth that comes as we throw ourselves into a life with God in this particular way that engages the whole person. You know Christianity is not an ideology; it is a relationship with a living Lord and that is done through on all those levels that make us human.”

We have so many distractions around us: fancy gizmos to connect us to music, games, and people from all over the world. We have media sources shouting truths and not-so truths about anything and everything.

But we also have unique places to help re-center ourselves.

A roadside chapel on the grounds of the Champion Shrine. (Photo: Tony Ganzer)

Not falling by the wayside

This brings us back to the idea of wayside chapels, or roadside chapels. In Wisconsin, literally down the road from the Champion apparition site, you begin to find tiny chapels.

They’re being documented by Fr. Edward Looney: “Well I’m the pastor of a parish in Brussels, Wisconsin, so you could imagine that the name Brussels correlates to Brussels. Belgium.”

Tony: You would think!

Fr. Edward: “In fact another neighboring village next to me is called Namur, which is another city in Belgium. So the area I serve as a priest is actually the largest Belgian immigrant-settled area. Like there’s more Belgians in this area in the United States any than anywhere else, or something like that.”

“So the roadside chapels are kind of this European devotion, and in fact here in Wisconsin there’s a few Polish customs of little shrines or wayside shrines along the way. For example, if you go to Pulaski, Wisconsin there’s about three of them. If you go to Stevens Point, there’s more of them there, and notably John Paul II said Mass somewhere in Stevens Point because it’s a large Polish population in that area. So there are these little Polish shrines and I want to go visit them, i haven’t done that. I want to kind of document them as well.”

“Anyways, so it is a common European thing which 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 a Hail Mary. It was really the faith, it was the devotion of the people.”

Examples of chapels

“Some of these roadside chapels here in northeastern Wisconsin they’re some of them are to the popular saints. You know you’ve got St. Peregrine. That’s very popular, everyone knows somebody with cancer. That’s at one of my churches and so we actually put candles in there so people could light a candle, and they love that. So then there are other chapels of course to the Blessed Mother, or the Sacred Heart, or Saint Jude, Saint Anthony–these popular saints. But then you get these obscure saints, like St. Ghislaine who is a Belgian bishop that nobody knows about, that his Wikipedia page doesn’t say much about him, but what there is is there is a Ghislaine village, like St. Ghislaine that’s the name of a municipality in Belgium. But apparently a bishop, and he’s invoked for children with convulsions or something like that.”

“So you have these roadside chapels to obscure saints–well what’s another one let me just think of one…Well St. Roch, he was really unknown up until March 2020. St. Roch is the saint that’s been invoked during the time of pandemic and especially in pandemics and plagues in the past, the Litany of Saint Roch, for example, says that he was invoked by the Council of Florence–or whatever council it was, but that a Council invoked his intercession during the time of a pandemic. You learn about these saints as you visit them as you research who they are and you’ll learn about them.”

“Anyways, they’re just interesting little stories but these families kind of informed by their life from Belgium or their family heritage for whatever reason started putting these chapels up and some of them have very interesting stories. Some of them were like in gratitude for a grace received. There’s this one chapel and it’s actually not far from the Champion Shrine, it’s called the Pierlot (?) Chapel, I don’t know if I say that last name right, but there’s a little sign in there that says this chapel was built because so-and-so was drowning, he fell through the ice on the water during winter, and as he was drowning he said ‘Blessed Mother if you save me I will build a shrine, I will build a chapel in your honor,’ and so he lives and so now we have a chapel on that property. They’re cute little chapels, they’re small.”

Improving the theology of chapels

“I’ve worked with a few people because the theology of their chapel wasn’t what I thought was right. Let’s say there’s a roadside chapel to say Robert Bellarmine, well you would expect to have a picture of St. Robert Bellarmine, or a statue of St. Robert Bellarmine. And so there’s been a few chapels that I’ve had to help people say I think we should put this statue here, we should you know kind of maybe modify this chapel a little bit. But you’ll see the patron saint there, and then there’s cute little statues, you know some of them are chintzy, you know they’re cute little statues, but…I think some people lose the sense of what they are. But yeah there are people that are still building them to this day.”

History of the chapels

“The earliest roadside chapel here in the in northeastern Wisconsin probably is the one in the 1870s. It’s still there built out of stone, another one right after that. So these are the older chapels that we have, but there have been chapels built throughout the last–throughout the last century.”

“In this new millennium there was one that I just blessed the other day. That the individual, because she was taken to these chapels as a young person always wanted to have a roadside chapel, she had this diagnosis of liver cancer and so she’s like I guess it’s time to build our chapel if I’m gonna see it. And so she builds this chapel and somehow miraculously–I’ve never known anyone to ever come back from liver cancer–but she’s cancer-free they say. So you wonder like was it because she built this chapel and because of all the people now that are gonna come to this chapel did God give this grace because of that reason?”

“Another person I know wants to build a chapel because they’re grateful for the healthy delivery of all their grandchildren, so they they went on a pilgrimage with me to the Holy Land and they want to build a chapel to the Visitation, so they were very moved by that shrine in the Holy Land. So they’re the people want to continue their heritage and it’s a very, yeah it is very interesting that they want to continue it. “

“You know what for some of these people there was one chapel that was built and it was built for a man that was in the seminary ended up becoming a priest, Fr. Edward Lemieux, but his family built him a roadside chapel so that when he would come home from the seminary. He would have a place to pray and I know people that use their roadside chapels as a place of prayer. There was an older gentleman, he’s since passed, but he had a roadside chapel in his yard and he would go in there every day and he’d pray as 15 prayers of St. Brigid or whatever he prayed, you know and he just that was where he prayed his Rosaries.”

“So they are places of devotion and they are used by the homeowners, but they’re also advertised. I run the Belgian roadside chapel–I started the Belgian roadside chapel page on Facebook, and I share about all the different roadside chapels and everything and post pictures or videos or whatever, and so people go there. Where they are, they’re in a very touristy area and so people might choose, there’s about 34 of them if I’m not mistaken and so they might go to one or two of them they want to stop and see and learn what this is all about and hopefully pray.”

Tony Ganzer: One of the thoughts that Father Carlos gave me, he was the priest who originally told me about Champion, he said that when talking about pilgrimage so often we think we have to go far away, and here we have in Wisconsin the Champion Shrine which is more or less in our backyard in the United States, or as I said to him our back dairy farm, right?

Fr. Edward: “It’s a $500 plane ticket away.”

Tony: Right, right, or a drive, you know a full day’s drive depending on where you are. But one of the things he told me was you can make a pilgrimage out of anything really. You can walk to different parishes where you are and make it a point to pray, and I was reminded of that as you were talking about these roadside chapels, that really this could be a pilgrimage that you decide on a day you are going to yeah say a Rosary at five different chapels, and that’s going to be your pilgrimage–to try to recommit yourself to the faith and I wonder what what a good that would be if people started thinking about pilgrimages in that way to dedicate themselves to prayer in a very intentional manner.

Fr. Edward: “Yeah, there are lots of shrines, and there are obscure shrines as well. You know like I happen upon some of the most remote shrines in my travels partly because I like seeing that. So in Briggsville, Wisconsin, by Wisconsin Dells there is a shrine to St. Philomena, the obscure wonder saint that captured the heart of St. John Vianney, and so there’s they’re saying there’s shrines like that. There are other major shrines, other titles of Mary in addition to the apparitions, but you have shrines to different saints like if you go to New Orleans–I went to the Blessed Francis Xavier Celo shrine. Sure I knew he had a liturgical feast day, I didn’t know anything about him, but I’m in New Orleans and I’m like I’ll go there.”

“You do that when you go on a little trip and for me as a priest whenever I travel I look for those places, and I’ll be going to Iowa soon and I’ll be going to a shrine there, but I know that there’s this grotto on the way back and so I’m going to stop at that grotto, and check it out and learn the history behind it, and be able to share that with other people. So, there are there are actual places you know right around us that you could go”

“I can’t help but remember the story of John Paul II, he goes to his parish church after his mother dies, goes to the altar of Mary and says ‘Mary you must be a mother to me now.’ And so well that for him that was a mini-pilgrimage, as he went to offer a prayer to the Blessed Virgin.”

“And in one of my churches we have a very beautiful statue of Our Lady, and there’s this one gentleman who lives you know, I would say he literally stops anytime he’s in the area because he wants to pray, because he’s so touched by that statue of the Blessed Mother, so you find those little places.”

“The documentary that I’m filming starts with the story we start with is driving through kind of the back country roads and looking at the houses and seeing they have a statue of Mary in front of their house. Well you know that they’re a Catholic, but it’s a reminder well Mary is there. I can ask her to pray for me. I can maybe pray a Hail Mary right now. So these little statues whatever the case might be are just reminders for us to bow our head to raise our thoughts to heaven to ask the intercession of the saints for sure.”

My thanks again to Fr. Edward Looney for his help on these episodes, and for having me on his podcast as well—please check out his work.

I hope this episode, and this series have given you something to consider as you journey forward in your own faith.

I’d like to end with a quote from the brilliant St. Francis de Sales which might apply to this episode. He says: “The pilgrims who spend all of their time counting their steps will make little progress.”

It’s not about the steps, it’s about the direction you’re pointing yourself. I’m sure St. Francis would hope that direction is toward God.

Thank you for listening, and please, have a great day.

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