The Catholic Church in the United States has extra reason to celebrate on this particular December 8 feast of the Immaculate Conception.
After a special morning Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help at Champion, Wis., Bishop David Ricken concluded two years of investigation by officially approving the authenticity of the Marian apparitions that took place on this site in 1859.
As Bishop of Green Bay, his official decree and proclamation makes Our Lady of Good Help the very first and the only site in the United States of an approved apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Citing in his decree the continuous streams of faithful who have come to the shrine for over 150 years to pray to Jesus through the intercession of Our Lady of Good Help, the long tradition of answered prayers, the graces poured out through the sacraments, the character of the visionary, and the immediate and continuing effects and mandate of our Blessed Mother, Bishop Ricken decreed: “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 of 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.”
“I encourage the faithful to frequent this holy place as a place of solace and answered prayer,” he added.
It has been that almost immediately after the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared three times in two days — Oct. 8-9, 1859 — to Adele Brise, a young Belgian immigrant. Mary identified herself as the Queen of Heaven and gave the young farm girl a twofold mission: to pray for the conversion of sinners and to catechize children: “... 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 …”
Brise “was given the charge and mission to be an evangelist in this mission territory, then a heavily forested area,” Bishop Ricken told the Register. At the price of great personal sacrifice, she brought the gospel and taught children to pray.
In a few short sentences the Blessed Mother gave Adele Brise “a mission that would take the rest of her life and a mission that would last here 150 years later,” Bishop Ricken said.
“Today the messages are just as pertinent as in the days of Adele Brise,” he explained, because today, more than then, there is “a need to hear the gospel and the truth proclaimed and lived and also the need to be catechized, to be made more aware of the teachings of the Church and to be able to defend and explain them.”
Today’s young generations need to hear the Gospel proclaimed afresh and new and to hear the teachings of the Church in a clear way.
Earlier, at a press conference shortly after the announcement, Bishop Ricken made the same point when he said that the country is hungry for the Gospel and the Good News. Calling our times an opportunity to do what Brise did as she went home-to-home to evangelize, he said that Catholics should be inspired to invite people to come to church and to catechize the younger generation.
“For the last few decades in the Church we have been wandering about in our efforts to educate people in the faith,” he said. Some of the basics are being forgotten, he continued, and youth especially are deprived of the Gospel and hungering for it.
Karen Tipps, who volunteers at the shrine and has lived on the grounds for 18 years with her husband Steve who is the caretaker, said that this proclamation is something everyone at the shrine has been hoping and praying for for years.
Now the message will reach the wider world. “I think the Blessed Mother wanted this message out now — teach children the faith; make sure we don’t lose any more generations; now is the right time to evangelize the world,” Tipps said.
“When school groups come, they’re in the presence of Our Lady and they respond,” Tipps said, pointing out that Our Lady said to gather the children. She also believes that Bishop Ricken, the 12th bishop of Green Bay, was handpicked by the Blessed Mother to be here at this point in history.
In fact, although Bishop Ricken’s announcement that he would declare the authenticity of the apparitions came less than a week ago, he was named head of the USCCB’s Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis at the USCCB meeting in mid-November.
“This certainly wasn’t a plan of mine or the bishops,” he said, adding that it seems providential.
After the proclamation of the decree, Father John Doerfler, the rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, said that he has a deep love for our Blessed Mother. “She is the most beautiful woman in the world, and this is a moment of great joy and honor for her, and that gives me great happiness.
“For the people who come here to the shrine through the years,” he continued, “it’s an affirmation of what they know in their hearts and experienced of the Lord working in their lives.”
Bishop Ricken noted that the answers to prayers here have included miraculous events. In 1871, 12 years to the day after the apparitions, the Peshtigo Fire, the worst forest fire ever recorded in North America, destroyed 1.5 million acres (bigger than the state of Rhode Island) of the land surrounding the shrine and took over 2,000 lives. The only oasis to survive was the shrine chapel and its other buildings on the five acres consecrated to our Blessed Mother as Brise, then Sister Adele, gathered the children and people and prayed in the chapel.
Healing of both body and soul have also marked the shrine since its beginning. Prayers after prayers have been answered, Bishop Ricken said. And not just simple prayers, but prayers in hopeless cases, he noted.
He said this apparition fits the qualities of other apparitions in Church history. Marian apparitions date back to the fourth century and have been reported around the world, according to the University of Dayton’s Marian Library, which holds the world’s largest collection of research on Mary. The Marian Library lists 11 Marian apparitions that have received official approval by diocesan bishops worldwide since 1900.
In fact, Bishop Ricken was surprised to discover that no official approbation had ever been given for this shrine, despite the fact that all of his predecessors had been supportive of it. That was part of his decision for today’s decree.
The other two reasons? “My love for the Blessed Mother, and the simple messages to get the faith out there.”
As for what will happen now at the shrine, the bishop said that depends on Divine Providence. For sure, there’s going to be cooperation with “whatever God and the Blessed Mother want here.”
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
CNS contributed to this story.
Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help
Champion (New Franken), WI
Photos courtesy of the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help.
Bishop Ricken’s decree and other documentation is available here.