What would get 140 people to crawl out of bed on a damp, dark, windy Sunday morning, and forfeit the extra hour of sleep guaranteed only once a year? Yes, they were boarding 3 motor coaches for what is affectionately termed Wisconsin’s “Frozen Tundra.” But this time, the Packers weren’t even in the state, and although a cheer erupted as the bus convoy passed Lambeau Field, our destination was not a mere sporting event, but a pilgrimage to what may become the most revered spot in the United States. Our sacred destination was a place near and dear to my heart, having visited here about 40 times in the past 7 years.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion is the only Church authenticated, officially approved Marian Apparition site in the United States. In 1859, it was here that our Lady, as the Queen of Heaven, appeared to a simple Belgian Immigrant, Adele Brise and commissioned her to: “gather the children in this wild country, and teach them what they should know for their salvation. . . .” Our Lady promised to help the alarmed Adele, instructing her: “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- Go and fear nothing!” Our Lady made good on her promise of help.
Twelve years to the day of her apparition, a group of faithful Catholics emerged from a terrifying evening of prayer, petition, and procession, to thank Our Lady for her life-saving intercession. It was the morning of October 9, 1871 that this grateful prayer cenacle emerged from the wooden Shrine Church to realize that the Peshtigo Fire (to this day the largest, most deadly fire in U.S. history), had passed them by, leaving the tiny 5-acre, consecrated parcel as an “emerald isle amid a sea of ash.” The Peshtigo fire burned 1.5 million acres (about the size of the entire state of Rhode Island), and yet passed over the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help; sparing those pilgrims who sought her protection, processing and praying the rosary (on their knees) throughout that long, terrifying night. The exact death-toll (settlers and Native Americans) of the Peshtigo Fire will never be known, but it is estimated that between 1,200-2,400 individuals lost their lives in this 2,000 degree hurricane of fire that raged through Northern Wisconsin, jumped Lake Michigan at Green Bay, and devastated countless families.
On this cool November morning, as our comfortable motor coach convoy traversed the lovely autumn countryside, not a trace of the ravages of the conflagration remained. From our comfortable seats, it was difficult to imagine the stifling smoke and ash that billowed from the relentless inferno- a fire so hot that sand and wind combined to spin strings of glass in places where trees had once stood. Today, the promise of Our Lord to “make all things new (Revelation 21:5)” is certainly visible in this lovely vista.
Shortly after we arrived at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, Bishop Don Hying, Fr. Peter Stryker, and Fr. Jewel celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Chapel is beautiful- simple, warm, and inviting. The Tabernacle shines beneath a translucent veil, and one can truly feel Our Lord’s Presence in this Chapel- His Mother’s house. It was a joy to once again see my son serve Holy Mass in a sanctuary built above the very spot where Our Lady descended from Her celestial throne to instruct, warn, and protect. Bishop Hying reminded us that Wisdom was not the same as knowledge or information. No, true Wisdom is synonymous with possessing a will that is completely in tuned with God’s Divine Will. Bishop Hying explained that Our Lady’s will was so absolutely in harmony with God’s Divine Will, that She is rightfully known as the Seat of Wisdom. He expounded on four of St. Louis de Montfort’s meditations, and directed us to consider our progress toward our ultimate destiny in light of the brevity of this life.
Holy Mass was followed by Benediction, a Eucharistic Procession around the Chapel, and the recitation of the rosary. After lunch, we again gathered with Bishop Hying for the outdoor Stations of the Cross. The Bishop gave a short, but profound meditation at each station. At the seventh station, as Jesus Falls the Second time, Bishop Hying spoke to us of the need for perseverance. He recognized how challenging it is to be in the middle- the middle of life, of a career, of marriage, of a vocation, etc., – and yet the need to persevere through the daily struggle, carrying the cross that is ours, to the glory that is to come. The breeze was no longer gentle, dark clouds began blanket the sky, and few drops of rain trickled down. The turn in weather suited the mood of the stations and helped to focus our attention on the suffering of Christ. As we processed behind the Bishop, I noticed the faces of the crowd of pilgrims reflected in each and every station. It was as if we were present with our Lord along the Way of the Cross. This was particularly striking when we approached the thirteenth station, the pieta- Jesus is laid in Mary’s Arms. In her private moment of unbearable anguish, we, her newly adopted children, were already present in her heart. God’s Love, and Our Lady’s fiat transcend time and space. Mary’s intercession was as powerful as she beheld Him after the Crucifixion, as it was in 1871, as it is today, and will be tomorrow. With Our Lady’s Good Help, we shall behold the face of Her Divine Son.
It was an awesome trip!
Blessings, M.A. JMJ
** My son continues to post a now 11-part history on the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help at his blog: http://godalonesufficeth.wordpress.com/