Standing at the top of the stairs that lead to the Apparition Oratory at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, Wisconsin, the first thing you notice is the profound sense of peace, of holiness, of – dare we say it – Our Lady’s presence which radiates, almost palpably, up the stairs.
A sense of peace is the one thing upon which most pilgrims comment, says the Shrine Rector, Father John Broussard, C.P.M. The sense of peace deepens, surrounds, and fills you as you descend into the Oratory (also known as the crypt), which is built on the exact spot on which Our Lady appeared to Adele Brise, a Belgium immigrant, in 1859.
It’s been almost eight years since Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin Bishop David L. Ricken issued a statement proclaiming that the apparitions of Our Lady of Good Help to the 29-year-old immigrant are worthy of belief. This means that this Shrine is the site of the only approved Marian apparitions in the U.S. Despite the publicity surrounding that announcement, and the fact that the U.S. Bishops designated Our Lady of Good Help a national shrine in 2016, many people still aren’t as aware of this Shrine as they should be.
EWTN wants to remedy that! In addition to an “EWTN Live” with Bishop Ricken, and numerous specials that aired after the Shrine was approved, this past June the Network premiered a new documentary entitled “The Marian Shrines of Wisconsin.” (The other two shrines are Holy Hill National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians in Erin, and the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse.) If you missed the most recent program, don’t worry. EWTN will air it again at 4 p.m. ET, Wednesday, Aug. 15, the feast of the Assumption.
Of course, the heart of the Shrine is the Apparition Oratory. A gorgeous statue of Our Lady dominates the room and appears to glow thanks to the lights and the candles which surround the statue and which flicker off the wall on the left side of the chapel. Other very large statues of saints stand guard around the chapel and the upper church. They include St. Pio of Pietrelcina, Sts. Cyril and Methodius, St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Michael the Archangel, St. Anne, St. John Vianney and more. You’ll even find a replica of the Pieta, and a large stained glass window of Jesus and Mary in the Oratory.
There is a petition box at the top of the stairs, along with statues of St. Therese and St. Anthony, where pilgrims from around the world can make their requests to Jesus through Our Lady, who is the Church’s greatest intercessor. Just as at Lourdes, the many crutches left behind visually attest to the fact that many of the pilgrims’ petitions have indeed been answered. You can read a few of those testimonials at www.shrineofourladyofgoodhelp.com/healings/ and send in your own petitions at www.shrineofourladyofgoodhelp.com/prayer-and-novenas/.
It’s hard to leave.
In contrast to the Apparition Oratory, the Apparition Chapel or upper church, where Mass is celebrated, is filled with daylight rather than candlelight, as well as an unusual altar. The centerpiece is another beautiful statue of Our Lady holding the Christ Child, with an overhead banner that says “Ave Maria.” At the rear of the church is the statue everyone has been searching for: Our Lady of Good Help. Many people are surprised to see that she is blonde, but that is how she appeared to the 29-year-old visionary.
When Our Lady appeared to Brise, she identified herself as the Queen of Heaven. So why is the Shrine known as Our Lady of Good Help?
According to Fr. Edward Looney’s book, “The Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help: A Self-Guided Tour,” “Adele was a French Belgian Catholic, and as such, their ethnic group had a strong devotion to Notre Dame de Bon Secours. Translated in English, this title means Our Lady of Good Help. … Adele dedicated the chapel under that title because of her devotional life. But if we look at the events of Adele’s life…Adele constantly relied on the Blessed Mother’s intercession. It was her good help that Adele sought.”
Brise’s grave is located in a small cemetery to the right of the Church. It’s the one with the flowerbed and the headstone that says, “Under the shadow of thy sacred cross I rest and hope.” If you place your hand on the headstone and pray, you just might be blessed with the sense that your prayer has been heard and answered.
Lift your eyes above the gravesite, and you will see acres of what was once farmland, edged with trees and a crushed stone path that rings the property in the back of the church. Here, pilgrims can traverse the same ground as terrified villagers did on Oct. 8, 1871, when the Peshtigo Fire, which occurred 12 years after the apparitions, swept through 1.2 million acres of forest, jumping over the Peshtigo River, and destroying everything in its path. Estimates of those who perished in the largest fire in U.S. history range from 1,500 to 2,500. (In contrast, the Great Chicago Fire, which started on the same day, killed an estimated 300 people, and left 100,000 homeless.)
During the Peshtigo Fire, many took refuge at the church, where they found the visionary praying. As the fire pressed closer, the people began to walk around the perimeter of the church grounds carrying a statue of Mary, and singing and praying the rosary. As the flames threatened suffocation on one side of the property, the people turned and faced the other side. After an all-night prayer vigil, a rainstorm extinguished the fire.
According to one account, the fence posts around the property were charred black on the outside, but inside the fence “the place shone like an emerald isle in a sea of ash.”
As Father Broussard said in a talk from the altar, “Our Blessed Mother protected all those who had faith, the same faith as Adele had taught them.” This event had much to do with the apparitions being declared authentic by the Church.
Today, you can walk the same path as these terrified villagers once did. In fact, the Miracle of the (Peshtigo) Fire Celebration is memorialized each year on Oct. 8 with a candlelight procession and all-night Adoration at the Shrine. However, the path behind the church is now marked with banners proclaiming each decade of the rosary while the center of the green lawn ringed by the path boasts numerous statues enclosed in see through cases. The Shrine grounds also include a small café, a gift shop, and even a few overnight accommodations.
During the Catholic Media Conference’s annual convention in nearby Green Bay, the staffs of diocesan newspapers and communications departments from dioceses across the country were blesssed by an afternoon/early evening pilgrimage to the Shrine. We had the opportunity to attend Mass, participate in a rosary walk, and listen to Fr. Broussard describe the visionary’s life and what Our Lady asked of her (and, by extension, us) during the third apparition. I’ll cover that in Part 2 of this special “Inside EWTN” blog on the Shrine. Look for that post tomorrow evening!
If you can’t wait, you can go to the Shrine’s website at www.shrineofourladyofgoodhelp.com. (But I promise I’ll tell you more!). You can also purchase one of EWTN’s many specials on the Shrine from EWTN Religious Catalogue at http://bit.ly/OurLadyOfGoodHelp. And, of course, you can always make a pilgrimage to the Shrine itself.
Let’s not keep our Mother waiting!