Champion, Wisconsin, isn’t a place you’d expect to find much. It lays a long stretch of cornfields away from nearby Dyckesville and Algoma. Somewhere close is a town named Alaska. I haven’t been there, but I’ve seen the signs.
Nestled into these fields is the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help. Growing up in Green Bay, less than an hour away, “The Shrine” was a place I knew existed, but I didn’t know much else. I always thought it seemed a little kooky to think that in 1859, the Blessed Virgin Mary (Mary!!) would have appeared to some Belgian farm girl. My own grandma grew up a rural Belgian girl, and Mary definitely didn’t appear to her.
When I was in college, though, the apparition at what is now the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help was approved, making it the first and only approved Marian apparition site in the United States. While I still hope someday to visit Lourdes, Knock, and Fatima, I am happy to visit Champion for now.
Here are the quick facts: In 1859, a woman dressed in white with flowing blonde hair appeared to Adele Brice three times. Adele was in her late 20s, living with her parents, and she was unsettled. She sought advice and at the third apparition, asked the woman, “In the Name of God, who are you and what do you wish of me?” The woman responded: “I am the Queen of Heaven, who prays for the conversion of sinners, and I wish you to do the same.“
Soon, a chapel was built on the spot, quickly joined by a convent and a school. Pilgrims soon began to visit, and women joined Adele to live simply following the rule of Third Order Franciscans.
Twenty years later, while Chicago burned at the other end of Lake Michigan, an even larger firestorm erupted in Northern Wisconsin. The Peshtigo Fire swept over 1.2 million acres of land, killing thousands, and remains the most devastating fire event in American history. The firestorm had winds over 100 miles per hour and temperatures reaching 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. As a kid, I had a book about the fire, and even the barest facts boggled my mind.
While the fire began to swell throughout the Door Peninsula, where Champion and its shrine are located, Adele refused to leave the chapel grounds. She and her companions processed around the grounds, begging the Blessed Mother for her protection. After the fire died down, the surrounding land was burned, but the chapel grounds and all those who had sought refuge there were untouched and unharmed by the flames.
Today, the Shrine retains much of its local charm, tucked away in its remote home, even as it becomes better known in the wider Catholic world. The grounds are quiet, with a handful of devoted pilgrims each day, rather than the throngs of tourists found at many other shrines. The Chapel, the Crypt, and the Stations garden are especially lovely in the warm months, when it is possible to wander the grounds and reflect on Our Mother Mary, wrapping us in her mantle as she did on the night of the firestorm.
Brigid Hogan is a midwestern graduate student who finds peace in lakes, the Mass, and fiction when she isn’t ensconced in schoolwork. Find out more about her here.