Mexico has Guadalupe, France has Lourdes, Portugal has Fátima — and now the United States has Champion, Wis., as the site of the country’s first officially recognized apparition. 

On Dec. 8, at a special Mass for the feast of the Immaculate Conception at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, Green Bay Bishop David L. Ricken read the decree of recognition of three apparitions witnessed by an immigrant farm girl in 1859. 

“I declare with moral certainty and in accord with the norms of the Church that the events, apparitions and locutions given to Adele Brise in October 1859 do exhibit the substance of supernatural character, and I do hereby approve these apparitions as worthy of belief (although not obligatory) by the Christian faithful,” he said. 

The apparition 

Having moved with her family from Belgium to the rich farming land in Wisconsin in 1855, Brise [pronounced “bryce”] was carrying grain to a mill in the Champion area on Oct. 9, 1859, when she witnessed the first of three apparitions of a woman she said was dressed in dazzling white with a yellow sash around her waist and a crown of stars around her head. 

The woman appeared a second time to Brise while walking with her sister and a neighbor to Mass in a nearby town. After Mass she sought the advice of her confessor, who instructed her not to be afraid and, should she see it again, to ask the apparition its name and the reason for its appearance. 

Upon returning home with her companions, the apparition appeared a final time. When Brise asked the identity of the apparition as she was instructed, it replied, “I am the Queen of Heaven who prays for the conversion of sinners, and I wish you to do the same.” 

Brise then asked the apparition what she desired of her, and the apparition replied: “Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation. ... Teach them their catechism, how to sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross, and how to approach the sacraments; that is what I wish you to do. Go and fear nothing. I will help you.” 

Once news of the apparitions spread around the region, Brise’s father built a chapel at the apparition site. 

Committing her life to fulfilling Mary’s request, Brise became a Third Order Sister of St. Francis and wandered the countryside tirelessly teaching young people until her death in 1896. She also had built St. Mary’s Boarding Academy next to the chapel. 

Mounting evidence 

Bishop Ricken told Our Sunday Visitor that the recognition process began with his predecessor Bishop David A. Zubik, now bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. 

“I had never heard of the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, and when I got here [in 2008] that was one of the first things I was told when I was briefed on all the wonderful Catholic presence here in northeastern Wisconsin,” he said. “I saw so many good things happening historically and in the present that I thought it was very much worthy of further study.” 

With the help of Father John Doerfler, rector of the shrine and vicar general of the Green Bay diocese, Bishop Ricken gathered documents, letters and other evidence, and enlisted a team of Marian theologians to sort out the facts of the case. 

“They pored over them for a long time, and about a year and a half later they sent us the conclusions of their study,” he said. “Two of them were quite positive, while the other said he started with a negative attitude toward it, but changed his mind as he looked into it. Any questions or doubts that they had were answered in the course of their study.” 

Three aspects of the apparition convinced Bishop Ricken of its veracity — the doctrinal validity of Mary’s message to Sister Adele, its continued significance, and Sister Adele’s simple obedience and passionate response to the message. 

“Sister Adele was a catechist and evangelist — two emphases our Church needs today to continue to proclaim the Holy Gospel and to do it with zeal, enthusiasm and joy,” he said. “We also need to be deeply rooted again in our catechetical tradition and true knowledge of the Church.” 

In fact, said Father Johann Roten, of the University of Dayton’s Marian Research Institute, Mary’s words to Sister Adele anticipated by more than half a century Pope Pius X’s emphases on catechesis and frequent reception of Communion. 

Seeing the good fruits that the shrine has yielded, Bishop Ricken said he was also convinced by the number of miracles attributed to the apparition. 

“There are incessant reports of miracles and healings — physical, emotional and spiritual healings,” he said. “They’re still happening today.” 

Perhaps the most dramatic miracle involving the shrine took place in 1871, during the great Peshtigo Fire. Due to unusually dry and windy conditions in the densely wooded area of northeast Wisconsin, what started out as a typical forest fire eventually consumed 1.2 million acres of land — including 12 towns — and claimed between 1,500 and 2,500 lives, making it the worst fire in U.S. history. 

According to the shrine’s account, it lay square in the fire’s path. As the wall of flames approached, Sister Adele was processing with pilgrims on the shrine grounds, which along with the chapel and other buildings were untouched as the fire passed around the shrine’s five-acre perimeter. 

Joseph O’Brien writes from Wisconsin.

How It Works (sidebar)

Father Johann Roten, director of research and special projects at the Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute (ML/IMRI), University of Dayton, Ohio, said Church recognition of an apparition has two levels: popular devotion, and authenticity itself. 

“First, there is the recognition of the religious practice. If such an apparition is announced and if things happen normally, people go to the site, they pray, they may have Mass, and so forth. If these things happen in a normal way, and they’re not too crazy or off the wall, the Church [through the local bishop] may explicitly or implicitly say it accepts at that particular place the religious expression or expression of the faith taking place there — the Mass, the prayers and so forth.” 

The second level is more critical, and is about the authenticity of the apparition itself. 

“The second level of recognition looks at the authenticity of the supernatural origin of the event,” he said. “So, for instance, when you look at what took place in Champion, that’s what Bishop Ricken actually says. He recognizes with moral certitude the supernatural substance of what happened.” 

Father Roten pointed to the alleged apparitions in Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina as an example of the Church giving approval on the first level but not on the second. 

“There’s a recognition of the faith expression,” he said, “but the bishops in Medjugorje never came forward to certify the authenticity of the supernatural origin of the apparitions.”