I couldn’t resist that play on the old song title, and feel perfectly justified typing it despite the lightning bolt I imagine hovering over my left shoulder. If I have faith in anything in life, it is this — if there is a divine Creator who keeps a deft hand in the world from time to time, I am that Creator’s fault and He/She/It accepts me just the way I am, irreverent warts and all.
With a sense of childlike hope and suspended cynicism, I drove to The Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, WI to see what it would feel like standing on ground where Mary once appeared. (Cue second thunderbolt.) It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a devout priest to figure out if you arrive here with low expectations, you’ll leave here either converted or wondering where the nearest burger joint is. I have to admit to the second more than the first. (Ducks.) But it was more out of hunger than lack of a moving experience.
There was a serenity and solemnity that surrounded the Shrine and its grounds. It is a quiet, unassuming place where the devout go to thank, to pray, to beseech, to honor, and to leave renewed and hopeful. I wasn’t expecting apparitions to appear or voices to speak to me. I hear voices in my head all the time and wonder, “Who just said that?” especially driving as much as I have been lately. You begin to think perhaps there are divine voices coming through…until a sentence ends with “f*cker” and it’s pretty clear that ain’t God speaking.
The provenance of the Shrine stems back to 1859 when a young Belgium immigrant named Adele Brise received three apparitions, the last of which Mary summoned her to “gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation.” Adele’s father, Lambert, built a small wooden shrine on the spot to allow Adele to begin her mission. A larger chapel was built in 1861 to accommodate the increasing number of people making pilgrimages there and it was inside that chapel that Adele led the local people to pray for the Virgin Mary’s protection from the great firestorm of 1871.
Intriguingly, the little known story of the Peshtigo Fire occurred on the same day and was overshadowed by the infamous Chicago Fire. Peshtigo however remains the most devastating loss of life by fire in US history with estimates of between 1200 and 2400 people killed and 1.2 million acres of land destroyed. Setting small fires to clear land for farming and railroad construction was common practice in those days. Drought conditions coupled with strong winds from a cold front that descended quickly on October 8, 1871 fanned the flames to uncontrollable proportions.
Reports that the fire jumped the bay (Green Bay) and spread across the Door Peninsula were never proven, but on that day, Sr. Adele led the other sisters, area farmers and their families, and even a few lucky cows to the grounds of the chapel where they prayed fervently for their protection. Hours later, heavy rains extinguished the fire. The land surrounding the chapel was destroyed, but all those who had taken refuge there survived. This along with several stories of miracles occurring there since is what helped The Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help gain national recognition. In 2010, it apparently became the first and only apparition sighting approved by the Catholic Church in the United States.
When I walked into the church, I was struck by the beauty of the Blessed Virgin’s all-white clothed, golden haired statue to the right of the altar and was sure I’d met her in London at some point. (Forgive me Father…) Still I felt quite drawn to it and thought how interesting it is that apparitions of Mary always have the physical attributes appropriate to each culture she visits.
To the right of the statue is a doorway leading downstairs to what felt like the hearth of the Shrine, the Apparition Oratory, a crypt-like spot where Mary is said to have actually appeared to Adele. Here is where the real prayer of thanks and petitions for miracles are clearly laid. To the left of the altar is what looks like a commercial coffee machine that dispenses Holy Water instead. I rushed upstairs to the Gift Shop to purchase little plastic holders so I could bring back a couple of blessed vials to people I thought would appreciate them. I also grabbed two little plastic rosaries and anointed them with Holy Water, one for me for the road and one for my mother ‘cuz you do, don’t you?
Outside on the shrine grounds, there is a rosary walk and the Stations of the Cross, as well as the burial grounds for Adele and the sisters that worked side by side with her to convert the wild children of the pioneer country. I left glad to have visited and decided since there was still daylight to drive further up the peninsula to Sturgeon Bay where I spent a wonderful weekend with my first true love and his equally loving family. The ride was beautiful and brought back memories for which I remain grateful to this day. I may not have exactly felt Mary in my bones on the grounds of the shrine in Champion, but I sure felt grateful for the many blessings I’ve had in my life. In that sense, it felt natural to say a prayer of thanks and to leave behind a reprobate’s request for protection on this little pilgrimage I’ve undertaken.