CHAMPION, Wis. — In France, the shrine at Lourdes is surrounded by hundreds of hotels and has received as many as 45,000 pilgrims in a single day. Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Mexico, draws millions of fervent worshipers a year.
Now, a little chapel among the dairy farms here, called Our Lady of Good Help, has joined that august company in terms of religious status, if not global fame. This month, it became one of only about a dozen sites worldwide, and the first in the United States, where apparitions of the Virgin Mary have been officially validated by the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1859, the year after Mary is said to have appeared in Lourdes, a Belgian immigrant here named Adele Brise said she was visited three times by Mary, who hovered between two trees in a bright light, clothed in dazzling white with a yellow sash around her waist and a crown of stars above her flowing blond locks. As instructed, Brise devoted her life to teaching Catholic beliefs to children.
On Dec. 8, after a two-year investigation by theologians who found no evidence of fraud or heresy and a long history of shrine-related conversions, cures and other signs of divine intervention, Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay declared “with moral certainty” that Brise did indeed have encounters “of a supernatural character” that are “worthy of belief.”
Lourdes-like hordes have not yet gathered, but since the weighty decree a growing stream of visitors, some driving several hours, has found its way here to pray and revel in what many said was the palpable presence of Mary. Calls are coming in from as far as New York from church groups that want to visit by the busload, and local church officials are wondering whether they thought too small when they built a new parking lot — planned well before this month — with 75 spaces.
Debbie Banda, 46, and her mother, Mary Young, 75, who live nearby, learned of the shrine and the bishop’s decision from the news, and came for the first time Wednesday.
“It’s incredible — she’s here, you just feel it,” Banda said after praying in the crypt chapel, said to be on the spot of the apparitions.
As they passed a statue of Mary in white, just as described by Brise, Banda was overcome with emotion, weeping and hugging her mother. The two of them went back to pray some more.
“We need the Virgin Mary’s protection, and for her to keep an eye on our soldiers, too,” said Young, whose sons have served in the Middle East. “We’ll definitely be coming back.”
Catholic leaders described the decree in Wisconsin as a bolt of joy at a trying time for the Catholic church, which is troubled by revelations of sex abuse.