Mary, Jesus’ First Teacher
Our Lady was our Savior Jesus Christ’s first teacher. Who could know more than she about the importance of forming children in the Faith? In appearing to Adele on Wisconsin soil, it’s as if Our Lady drew back a bow and shot an arrow through time to pierce our hearts here in the Diocese of Madison as well. She knows the challenges we face, and in her daughter Adele we see a model of perseverance and fortitude in carrying out our crucial task of Catholic education.
In the 1600’s, French explorers (Jean Nicolet in 1634 was the first documented), fur trappers, and missionaries (including Père Marquette) visited and traded with the Potawatomi and Ho-Chunk Indians along what is now Door Peninsula, so named for the treacherous passage between the peninsula and Washington Island along which so many ships were wrecked that it came to be called Porte des Morts, or the Door of Death. A Catholic mission, Holy Cross, was established in 1834 in Bay Settlement, one of the earliest Catholic congregations in the country. In the 1850’s, Catholic Belgian immigrant farmers pushed north into the deeply forested peninsula escarpment to take advantage of cheap land.
It was a time of great suffering and poverty. The land had to be laboriously cleared of timber and brush before it could be farmed. The immigrants built log homes and stuffed the cracks with brush and mud, but the wind whistled through, and, unused to the winter, many of the early pioneers froze or starved to death or perished from cholera.
The practice of the faith and the moral life, unsupported by priests and churches, withered and even died, because it was impossible to travel south through the forests to Mass very often. One of the missionary priests in Bay Settlement wrote, “There is much to lose for the Catholic emigrant…. how many are there through poverty and often through indifference settle far from church. They end up by neglecting their duties of religion and live as unbelievers. The children are not instructed and grow up without knowing God.”
Adele’s Family Emigrates to Wisconsin
The family of Adele Brise moved into the area in 1855 and struggled with the others to establish themselves. Daughter Adele was 24. She had very little education and had also lost an eye in her youth. She was sad to leave Belgium because she had hoped to join a religious community there. But she was also interested in the foreign missions, and she was accustomed to hard manual labor. Her confessor in Belgium advised her to accompany her parents, saying, “If God wills it, you will become a Sister in America. Go; I will pray for you.” Once in Wisconsin, Adele became known for her fervent piety, ardent love of her neighbor, and unbounded confidence in the Blessed Virgin.
Our Lady Appears to Adele
One day, October 9, 1859, Adele was carrying on her head a sack of wheat from her father’s fields toward the grist mill, four miles away, following an Indian trail through the thick wilderness. As she labored along the trail, she looked up, startled, to see a lady all in white silently standing between a maple and a hemlock under a crown of stars, bathed in a heavenly light. Adele froze in place, frightened, but the lady faded in a gleaming cloud and disappeared. When Adele returned home, she confided in her parents, who suggested it might be a poor soul in need of prayers.
The following Sunday, the lady appeared again to Adele as she walked the 11 miles into Bay Settlement for Mass. Again, the lady said nothing and again faded into a white mist. Adele spoke of the apparition to her confessor who advised her to ask in God’s name who the lady was and what she desired of her. On the return home, the lady was again waiting for her, clothed in dazzling white with a yellow sash around her waist. Adele fell to her knees and asked, as she had been directed, “In God’s name, who are you, and what do you want of me?”
The Lady told Adele, “I am the Queen of Heaven who prays for the conversion of sinners, and I wish you to do the same.” She asked Adele what she was doing here in idleness when others were working in the vineyard of her Son, and Adele responded weeping, “What more can I do, dear Lady?” The Lady responded, “Go into the wilderness, gather the children, and teach them what they need to know for their salvation.” Adele, naturally, was frightened, and asked how she should teach them when she knew so little herself. Our Lady’s response? “Go and fear nothing. I will help you.”
Adele Establishes Her Mission in Champion
Adele soon won her father over to her cause, and he built a 10’x12’ log oratory at the site of the apparitions. From that point on until her death in 1896, Adele devoted herself to carrying out the work Our Lady had commissioned her to do. An eyewitness said, “With patience and earnestness that never flagged, she persevered in her mission going from house to house and helping unsolicited to do whatever work there was to be done in the household, asking only in return that she be permitted to give instruction to the children.” She walked as far as 50 miles from her home, going from house to house. When she asked a nearby farmer if she could instruct his child, he replied that he needed the child to milk the cows. Instantly, Adele offered to milk the cows for him in return for allowing her to teach the child. When groups of children were ready, Adele took them to Bay Settlement for their First Holy Communion.
By 1861 so many pilgrims were visiting the site that her father and other volunteers built a larger chapel, and a few years later, with the help of the new priest assigned to the Belgian colony, they built a school and convent. Sister Adele did not charge tuition or room and board. She begged throughout the region for vegetables, grain and meat to feed her little scholars. One of the sisters said, “Often we did not know what we would have for breakfast.” After the children were in bed, Sister Adele would gather the teachers and head for the chapel to beg Mary’s help. Before morning, someone would drop off a bag of flour or a supply of meat at the door.
The Peshtigo Fire
Stories of miracles connected with the Shrine abound, including when Our Lady protected the souls who fled to the Shrine during the horrific 1871 Peshtigo Fire. After a very dry summer, a fire sparked in the Wisconsin wilderness near the logging town of Peshtigo. Driven by dangerously high winds, it quickly spread and devoured entire towns, including Peshtigo. Nearly 2,000 people died, the deadliest wildfire in American history.
Father Peter Pernin, pastor of Peshtigo and also Adele’s pastor, gives a harrowing eye-witness account of how he, bearing the tabernacle from his parish church, survived by submerging himself in the Peshtigo River for over five hours. Those nearby the Shrine fled to Adele and the sisters who were praying in the chapel for Mary’s protection. Sister Adele quickly organized a procession around the perimeter of the Shrine grounds, and throughout the night the congregation prayed the Rosary and sang hymns to Jesus and the Blessed Mother.
The grounds and everyone within them survived the fire unharmed, while the conflagration burned everything around it. Father Pernin recounts, “After hours of horror and suspense, the heavens sent relief in the form of a downpour. The fervent prayers to the Mother of God were heard. The fire was extinguished, but dawn revealed the ravages wrought by the conflagration. But the convent, school, and chapel on the holy land consecrated to the Virgin Mary shone like an emerald isle in a sea of ashes. The raging fire licked the outside palings and left charred scars as mementos. Tongues of fire had reached the chapel fence and threatened destruction to all within its confines; the fire had not entered the chapel grounds.”
Those of us in the St. Ambrose community who grew up in northern Wisconsin still remember the stories our older family members told of the devastating fire and the intercession of Our Lady, protecting her daughter Adele and the community she had gathered to her.
The Need for Religious Education in the American Wilderness
What a deeply meaningful model Adele is for us in her obedient response to Our Lady! Apparitions such as this rarely occur, and only when there is an urgent need. At the First Plenary Council in Baltimore in 1851, the American bishops taught that “no parish is complete until it has schools adequate to the needs of its children.” The grave need for religious education in the American wilderness was sufficient cause then for the bestowal of divine favor, and the message is just as relevant today.
Church Approval of the Apparitions
On December 8, 2010, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, after years of research and investigations by expert Mariologists, Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay determined the apparations of Our Lady to Adele Brise to be “worthy of belief.” The Bishop stated, “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.” The USCCB formally declared the Shrine as the first and only Catholic Shrine in America with a Church-approved Marian apparition site.
On April 20, 2023, Bishop David Ricken of the Diocese of Green Bay joyfully announced that the Dicastery of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in Rome has approved October 9 as a high holy day of solemnity celebrating the apparition of Our Lady, the Queen of Heaven, to Adele Brise in Champion, Wisconsin, under the title of “Our Lady of Champion” (formerly Our Lady of Good Help).
These notes are indebted to a variety of sources, but primarily:
Dominica, Sister, Our Lady of Good Help: Remarkable account of Belgian immigrant Adele Brise who received an apparition from Our Lady in 1859 at the site in central Wisconsin that is now the Our Lady of Good Help Shrine. Sister Dominica of the Sisters of St. Francis in Bay Settlement was born in 1889, two years after Adele died, but she was a scholar of the pioneer history of the area and knew many who knew Adele, including Sister Pauline LaPlant, to whom Adele often told her story.
Pernin, Reverend Peter, The Great Peshtigo Fire: This eyewitness account was written by the pastor of the Catholic church in Peshtigo. It is a short but absolutely riveting account of the events leading up to the fire, the horrific night of the fire itself, and the aftermath. Father Pernin was the first chaplain to what is now Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.