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Apparitions of the Virgin Mary have inspired saints and marked places of special devotion and pilgrimage for centuries. 

Shrines at Lourdes, Fatima, Częstochowa, and Tepayac are spiritual centers of Catholic life and faith, not just for their own countries, but worldwide.

Other places of purported but disputed Marian appearances, like Međugorje, have become points of controversy as well as prayer. 

American Catholics, too, are always on the lookout for Our Lady, should she happen to appear in an office building window, a tree, or a pizza pan

But there is only one Church-approved apparition of the Virgin Mary in the United States, and it happened on October 9, more than 160 years ago.

This year, 2024, is the first time that the apparition of Our Lady of Champion, Wisconsin, will be celebrated as a solemnity, marking an autumn day in 1859, when a young Belgian immigrant woman encountered a lady in a brilliant white dress as she walked in the woods.

Adele Brise. Image via National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion.

But who was that young woman, what did the lady in white tell her, and how did that meeting become a solemnity?

The Pillar explains.


The road to Wisconsin

Adele Brise was born in Belgium to a Catholic family in 1831. At the time of her first Communion, she and some of her friends made a promise to the Virgin Mary that they would enter religious life, and become teaching sisters in their native country.

As it happens, Adele never professed religious vows, and soon departed Belgium, but Our Lady was listening anyway, it seems.

When Adele was in her early twenties, her family decided to emigrate to America. 

That decision put the young woman in something of a dilemma. Adele’s parents expected her to come with them, but she didn’t make or take her childhood promises to Mary lightly. She asked her confessor what to do, he encouraged her to be obedient to her parents, adding that if Our Lady wanted her to serve as a teacher and religious sister, she’d put her to work wherever Adele landed.

So she took ship in 1855 and the family settled in Wisconsin, already home to a growing Belgian expat community. 

Adele settled into pioneer life and the physical privations and drudgery that everyday life there involved — including a 10 mile hike to the nearest church every Sunday for Mass.

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A walk in the woods

Adele’s first encounter with Our Lady came in the first days of October, 1859, when she was walking in the woods. According to her own account of events, she saw a woman, dressed in white, standing silently between two trees. Adele didn’t know what to make of the meeting, though she had no doubt it wasn’t an ordinary human encounter.

When she relayed what she’d seen to her parents, they didn’t doubt what she’d seen, but were none the wiser about who she might have seen — listening to Adele’s account, her parents suggested it might have been a soul in purgatory seeking intercession.

But clarification came a few days later on Oct. 9, a Sunday. 

While Adele walked to Mass with two friends, she saw the woman standing in the same spot, still silently.

As neither of her friends could see the woman, Adele continued to walking to church. After Mass, Adele asked the priest what to make of what she’d see. 

If she saw the lady again, the priest told her, she should ask her “In God’s name, who are you, and what do you want of me?”

On the way back home, she saw the woman again, standing in the same place, this time crowned with stars and with a yellow sash around her waist. 

Adele asked her questions. 

She got this answer:

“I am the Queen of Heaven who prays for the conversion of sinners, and I wish you to do the same. You received Holy Communion this morning and that is well. But you must do more. Make a general confession and offer Communion for the conversion of sinners. If they do not convert and do penance, my Son will be obliged to punish them.”

The Virgin Mary asked Adele what she was “doing here in idleness while your companions are working in the vineyard of my Son?” 

She told Adele to “gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation.”

Adele asked the Blessed Virgin for more details about what — and how — she was supposed to teach children, since she wasn’t well educated herself. 

“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,” Mary told her. 

“Go and fear nothing, I will help you.” 

While all of that was going on, Adele’s two friends were standing by, unable to see or hear any of it. 

At one point, they asked her what was going on, and to whom she was talking. 

“The lady says she is the Queen of Heaven,” Adele relayed, and told them to kneel.

While other people might have responded with a measure of hesitant skepticism, given that their friend appeared to be conversing with thin air, Adele’s two friends were made of more pious stuff.

They dropped to their knees, earning the favor of Our Lady who, according to Adele, pointed to them and said approvingly, “Blessed are they that believe without seeing.”

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On the march

Adele took Mary’s instruction to heart, making sure she couldn’t be accused of “idleness” ever again. 

She started walking, house to house, traveling as far as 50 miles away, offering to do domestic chores if parents would let her teach the catechism to their children. 

Her parents fully supported her new mission, and her dad built a chapel to Our Lady on the family homestead, but wider reaction to Adele’s work was mixed — and she came in for a lot of ridicule.

She carried on like that for years, teaching children on her own, going door to door. 

But slowly a group of women joined her efforts, and local Catholic men built them a convent, school, and chapel for them, where the women lived and worked as Third Order Franciscans. 

Installed above the chapel door was the prayer “Notre Dame De Bon Secours, Priez Pour Nous.” 

Under the title of Our Lady of Good Help, Mary was invoked by the community there, with the chapel becoming a shrine and place of pilgrimage, especially after what happened in 1871.

An emerald in a sea of ashes

The Great Peshtigo forest fire killed more than 1,000 people, with many estimates putting the death toll at twice that number. The fire consumed more than 1 million acres on both sides of Green Bay, on Oct. 8, 1871. 

Dry weather and high winds combined to produce what was described as a “flaming tornado” by many observers, even though the event is largely forgotten in the popular consciousness because it started on the same night as the rather more famous Chicago Fire, some miles to the south.

Local Catholics fled to the shrine, where Adele and her companions led prayers and a Marian procession around the chapel throughout the night, begging for the Virgin's intercession as the building filled with smoke.

In the early morning of Oct. 9, 12 years to the day since Adele’s dialogue with the woman in white, heavy rain fell, putting out the worst of the fires. 

What the people found when they emerged from the chapel, according to the priest — Fr. Peter Pernin — was “miles of desolation, everywhere.” 

“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,” he wrote. “Tongues of fire had reached the chapel fence, and threatened destruction to all within its confines; the fire had not entered the chapel grounds.”

The substance of the supernatural

The shrine continued to be a focus of Marian devotion after the fire, and after Adele’s death in 1896, with Catholics — lay, religious, and clerics — making it a place of pilgrimage.

Scores of Catholics over the decades left accounts of prayers answered, healings, and spiritual consolation after seeking Mary’s intercession at the shrine. But, while all the local bishops of Green Bay supported the shrine and the popular devotions to Mary centered there, no authoritative pronouncement on Adele’s vision was ever sought or made until very recently.

In 2009, the 150th anniversary of Adele’s encounter with Our Lady, Green Bay’s Bishop David Ricken opened a formal investigation into the apparition. That investigation was led by three Marian experts who tried to get to the bottom of the century and half old tradition.

The primary sources they had to work with were, according to Bishop Ricken, “not abundant, due primarily to the fact that Green Bay at the time of the apparition was frontier country.”

Nonetheless, Ricken said they were able to conclude that “There is nothing in the person and character of Adele Brise that would question the veracity of the substance of her account.” On the contrary, he said, “her personal character is a major factor in favor of the recognition of the apparition.”

The experts also concluded that Adele’s narrative was free from any doctrinal error and entirely consistent with Church teaching, and that while none of the favors and graces reported by pilgrims and local faithful over the years had been officially declared to be miracles by the Church, “the uninterrupted history of faith and devotion testifies to the spiritual fruits bestowed upon the pilgrims to the Shrine.”

As such, in 2010, a year after the 150th anniversary, Ricken “declared with moral certainty” that the apparitions of Mary to Adele “exhibit the substance of supernatural character” and are “worthy of belief (though not obligatory) by all the Christian faithful.”

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The Champion of American shrines

Since the formal approval of Adele’s encounter by the local bishop, the Marian apparition at Champion has grown further into a national place of Catholic devotion and pilgrimage. 

Devotion to Our Lady’s Shrine in Champion became so widespread that in 2016 the U.S. bishops’ conference elevated the local chapel to become the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help.

That name changed this year, however, after the Vatican’s Dicastery for Divine Worship noted in a response to Bishop Ricken that churches and shrines can “by right celebrate the anniversary of their dedication as well as of their title with the rank of solemnity.” 

Ricken then issued a decree in April this year, declaring October 9 to be a solemnity in the diocesan calendar marking the anniversary of Mary apparition to Adele. 

At the same time, the bishop decreed that since Our Lady appeared to Adele in what is now Champion, Wisconsin, “in conformity with the proper terminology associated with approved Marian apparitions elsewhere” he was changing the name of the Shrine from Our Lady of Good Help to Our Lady of Champion.

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