The eyes of the Church were focused on a small rural chapel with a rich history located just outside of Green Bay, Wis., not too long ago. It was December 2010 and the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Bishop David Ricken, Green Bay’s 12th ecclesiastic leader, had just declared the apparitions of Our Lady of Good Help to a Belgian immigrant girl named Adele Brise to be authentic and free of error.
As headlines and Internet sites splashed the news of North America’s first officially recognized Marian apparition site, locals in the area already knew the obvious: This part of Wisconsin settled by the Belgians some 150 years ago was holy ground.
William Laatsch, a retired professor of geography for the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, has dedicated much of his career to learning all he can about the Belgium community of northeastern Wisconsin. Specifically, he has written extensively on the community’s tradition of building and maintaining roadside chapels.
“In the Walloon area (of Belgium), the agricultural villages are distinct. The villages would consist of a church, a tavern and a few other services,” said Laatsch. “The chapels would be in the village or out in the field or in the forest. They would be built out of stone, maybe 10 by 20 feet, and would not have a door.”
According to Laatsch, the 25-plus roadside shrines that cover three Wisconsin counties can trace their roots back to these Belgian stone chapels.
“Despite the fact that here the shrines are framed, have doors and are much smaller, they are direct antecedents of Europe,” he said.
The simply designed, 9-by-7 feet structures look oftentimes like a small tool shed or even an outhouse. What sets the buildings apart are the crosses on top and or inscriptions above the doors which provide the chapels’ names.
The Blessed Mother and her various titles certainly have the monopoly on the names dedicated to these tiny houses of prayer. However, chapels under the patronage of Sts. Anthony of Padua, Hubert or Odile also reflect the devotions of the local community.
Inside, the focus is the altar, which is often two- or three-tiered. These altars are typically filled with religious artifacts, statues of the Blessed Mother and a small container of holy water. Flowers and perhaps a picture of a deceased family member can also be found. Front and center on the top tier typically is a statue of the chapel’s saint or a crucifix.
The chapels usually contain just a prie-dieu (kneeler). The side walls are adorned with religious images and family certificates that commemorate a marriage or a first Communion of the family. Some of these certificates are over a century old and inscribed in French. Thus, these chapels, some of which were established in the mid-1800s, serve as a living history for the families who have maintained them over the decades.
Laatsch says that one of the misconceptions that surround these chapels is that they were built by the farming families who could not get to the parish church in the village.
“That is not true at all,” he said. “They were built because they were a votive chapel. They have been as a result of prayer. They were constructed because the families were admonished to do so or because of a particular need.”
Such a need would be a cure for a sick family member or a successful growing season on the farm. Laatsch noted that the chapels were built slightly removed from the farmsteads, such that the family could find a refuge for prayer and contemplation.
While the chapels are privately owned, they are commonly open to the public. Their locations close to the road were so that the chapels were easily accessible to passersby who wanted to stop in for a visit. Also, according to Laatsch, their roadside locations made it easier for the local priest to bless the chapel in the days when processions were more popular.
Spring, summer and fall seem to be the peak seasons for visiting. Each chapel usually has a notebook and pen inside which serve as the official guestbook. The names and locations of visitors are not just from nearby visitors, but, rather, represent a vast number of folks from the Midwest. That number is starting to grow in size and in distance traveled.
Over the past summer, buses and buses of pilgrims poured into the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help like never before. Laatsch said that such popularity will only add to the interest of the area’s historic roadside chapels.
“They are part of the fabric of the religious community today. They are visited by the family who cares for it. They are visited by people across the United States who are aware of these chapels and the saints that they honor.”
Eddie O’Neill writes from
Green Bay, Wisconsin.