National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help holds blessing of grapes

Inaugural blessing is a tradition in Europe’s grape-growing countries

CHAMPION — Numerous Catholic writers have noted similarities surrounding the Marian apparitions at Lourdes, France, and Champion, most notably the timing (1858 at Lourdes and 1859 at Champion) and the visionaries to whom the Blessed Mother appeared.

Both Bernadette Soubirous and Adele Brise were young, poor and suffered from physical infirmities.

Father of Mercy John Broussard, rector of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, blesses a basket of grapes during the shrine’s inaugural “Blessing of the Grapes” held Sept. 8 on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Another similarity between Lourdes and the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion was celebrated Sept. 8, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Both locations, though thousands of miles apart, are located near the same circle of latitude: 44 degrees north of the Earth’s equator.

The 44th parallel happens to be a prime growing area for grapes, which are used for wine. In France and other grape-growing countries, a traditional harvest blessing of grapes is held on the Nativity of Mary.

In a book titled “The Holyday Book” (Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1956), Fr. Francis X. Weiser (1901-1986) stated that “owners of vineyards bring their best grapes to church to have them blessed, and afterward tie some of them to the hands of the statue of the Virgin.”

“The feast of Mary’s Nativity is called ‘Our Lady of the Grape Harvest’ in those sections, and a festive meal is held at which the first grapes of the new harvest are consumed,” added Fr. Weiser.

The inaugural “blessing of the grapes” took place following the 11 a.m. Mass. The outdoor blessing was led by Father of Mercy John Broussard.

“It’s another opportunity for us to give reverence and veneration to our Blessed Mother for all of the gifts that she provides for us here at the shrine,” Fr. Broussard told The Compass following the blessing of the grapes. “It also fits very well into our own ministry here insofar as recognizing Mary as the one who gives us the fruit of her son and we take it out to everyone else.”

Corrie Campbell, coordinator of communications and events at the shrine, said the national shrine seeks to “call more attention to the traditions of Marian feast days and the Nativity of Mary is normally, in European countries, celebrated as feast day of Our Lady of the Grapes.”

“We decided to do the same here, since we are on the same parallel as many of the wineries and grape growers in France,” Campbell explained. “We decided to also engage (local wineries) and have them participate with us.”

Representatives from Parallel 44 Vineyard and Winery in Kewaunee, Von Stiehl Winery in Algoma, and Mona Rose Winery in Ashwaubenon brought grapes for the blessing ceremony.

Following Mass, a procession from the shrine chapel led guests to an adjacent outdoor tent, where display tables with grapes were set up.

The ceremony included Scripture readings, hymns, prayers and the blessing of the grapes by Fr. Broussard.

Maria Milano, who, along with her husband Steve Johnson, owns Parallel 44 Vineyard and Winery, said she is familiar with the blessing of grapes tradition and was happy to see it incorporated at the shrine.

“What a wonderful tradition,” she said. “To start your harvest that way is really neat. I hope it becomes bigger. The whole vineyard and winery concept is an agricultural product that people have this kind of romantic image about, and I feel like this is something that can really become big.”

Craig Fletcher, owner of Mona Rose Winery and member of Nativity of Our Lord Parish in Ashwaubenon, said it was “a very humbling experience” being asked to participate in the blessing of grapes. “My wife and I try to support the shrine. It’s part of our faith,” he said.

Fletcher, who started his winery four years ago, supplies sacramental wine for his parish, as well as St. Norbert College Parish in De Pere. He said he must follow guidelines set out by the church for making sacramental wine.

“(Church) law is just specific as far as the amount of alcohol that it has to have to be considered antiseptic and it’s got to be all natural,” he said.

Campbell hopes the blessing of the grapes becomes a popular, annual event at the shrine, located on the 44th parallel.

“Hopefully, we will have many more and we are going to invite local vintners and craft vintners in the future to participate as well. It’s the first harvest blessing and I think it’s a wonderful way to celebrate Marian feast days here at the shrine.”