Shrine observes 150 years

By | September 30, 2009

Anniversary events

This year, on Oct. 7 to 9, the 150th anniversary of the reported apparitions will be celebrated.

• On Wednesday, Oct. 7, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary will be celebrated with a 7 p.m. Mass.

• On Oct. 8, the annual Candlelight Rosary Procession will take place at 6:30 p.m. It will be followed by all night Adoration. Closing benediction will be at 9 a.m. Additionally, at least two people will make a rosary procession around the grounds each hour to commemorate the night of the Peshtigo fire in 1871 when people fled to the shrine grounds for safety.

• On Oct. 9, Bishop David Ricken will celebrate Mass to close the anniversary year at 10 a.m.

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A statue of Mary is surrounded by a flower garden at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Robinsonville. The shrine marks 150 years with events Oct. 7-9. (Rick Evans |For The Compass)

Vision of Heaven’s Queen

Adele Joseph Brice’s story began when she arrived from Belgium with her parents, Lambert and Catherine Brice, and her two sisters in 1855. They bought a farm at Red River, near the border of Brown and Kewaunee Counties. Adele had wanted to enter a Belgium convent, but her mother insisted she join them.

Adele had her first alleged apparition while carrying grain to a mill near Dyckesville. During two subsequent visions, Adele said Mary identified herself as “the Queen of Heaven” and told her, “Teach the children. … teach them their catechism, that they may know and love my Son; otherwise the people here will lose their faith.”

So the 27-year-old gathered the children and taught them about the faith in a 10 feet by 12 feet log chapel built by her father. Other women joined her cause and a larger chapel was built in 1861. The present chapel, the fourth, was built in 1940. The altar in its crypt stands over the site of the reported visions. Logs from the trees between which Adele said Mary appeared can be seen in a display case in the shrine’s gift shop.

While Adele was never a vowed religious, she gathered a lay community around her, known as the Sisters of Good Help. Adele, called Sr. Adele, became their leader. The need to care for and instruct local children was so great that Sr. Adele founded St. Mary’s Academy, a boarding school, in 1869. The school had 95 students enrolled by the 1871-72 school year. Sr. Adele supported the school by relying on God and the generosity of those she met. She sometimes went begging for what she needed.

One of Adele’s students was 6-year-old Odile Allard, who arrived at St. Mary’s Academy with her baby sister after their mother died. Odile, (later Sr. Marie du Sacre Couer) stayed until she was 15. “I don’t remember that there were less than a hundred children, the year around at the Chapel, mostly orphans,” she wrote in a letter to the sisters at Bay Settlement.

A hard life

Odile went with Sr. Adele on some of her begging treks. “I always signed her name for her, and the names of those who would give her something, … very, very few would refuse.”

Fr. John Doerfler, diocesan chancellor, is now the rector at the shrine.

“What is really remarkable about Adele,” he said, “is that her life had a real focus to pass on the faith to the children. She gave her whole life to this. And she was a simple, yet strong and dedicated, woman of faith. It was not an easy life. Yet she lived this life with joy, with humility, with abandonment to God’s providence and reliance on the intercession of the Blessed Mother.”

Bishop Ricken, who said he “was thrilled” to learn that the diocese had a shrine “dedicated to our Lady here,” echoed Fr. Doerfler’s sentiments.

“What has stuck me about the story of the life of Adele Brice,” he said, “is her lifelong fidelity to what the Blessed Mother asked her to do with her life. She dedicated her life to prayer, especially for the conversion of sinners and to the catechesis of children. She made great sacrifices and attracted other young women to follow her in her fidelity to the Blessed Mother’s call.”

The night of fire

Sr. Adele was well known for her faith. When the Peshtigo fire of Oct. 8, 1871, threatened the area, people brought their families and farm animals to the grounds of the chapel.

During the night, the faithful, led by Sr. Adele, carried a statue of Mary around the perimeter of the grounds in prayer. By the morning, a downpour doused the flames. Outside the perimeter of the chapel grounds, everything was burned; yet the inside of the five-acre perimeter remained unscathed. To this day, many consider the event a miracle and the procession around the grounds has been repeated on every Oct. 8 since.

Fr. Doerfler said he feels that the popularity of the annual October events is a realization that “we have a real tendency today to think technology will be our salvation. And while technology can help us with many, many things, it cannot save us. And it cannot answer the questions of the deepest longings of the human heart.”

Another annual event at the shrine is the outdoor Mass each May. The event was started in 1895 by Norbertine Fr. Bernard Pennings (later Abbot Pennings, founder of St. Norbert Abbey and St. Norbert College in De Pere). It included a procession to the chapel’s grounds.

But the most popular event by far is the annual Mass on the feast of the Assumption.

“For 150 years, that’s been the event to be here for,” said Karen Tipps. She and her husband, Steve, have worked at the shrine for 17 years. Each Aug. 15, cars will line the small county road in front of the Shrine’s grounds for a mile or more, starting early in the morning.

Sr. Mary Ellen Lowney, a 70-year jubilarian with the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross at Bay Settlement, was assigned to the chapel from 1972 to 1978, and she too recalls the crowds that came for the Assumption feast. But she saw it as only one aspect of the prayer life of the descendants of the Belgian immigrants, like the Brice family.

“What really impressed me was the deep faith that the Belgian people had for the Blessed Mother,” Sr. Mary Ellen said. “I would see men drive up early in the morning and go in to pray. And we’d see the same thing on their way home from work.”

After Adele

The faith of those people helped Adele continue her school and the prayer site there until her death on July 5, 1896. She is buried in a small cemetery to the east of the chapel, not far from the site of the reported apparitions.

After Adele’s death, the school faltered and, in 1902, Bishop Sebastian Messmer turned the responsibility for it over to the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross of Bay Settlement. Sr. Pauline LaPlante, one of the community’s original members, took over the boarding academy and ran it until her own death in 1926.

“What struck me about Sr. Pauline,” said Sr. Mary Ellen, “was her love of the poor, her unselfishness and her desire to help anybody who was in need. I was told the story that somebody came to the door without clothing and bedding, and she took the quilt off her own bed and gave it to them.”

The school was remodeled into a Home for Crippled Children in 1933. In 1953, Bishop Paul Rhode discontinued the home and that building, built in 1885, became a pre-novitiate high school for the Bay Settlement Sisters. In 1970, the grounds became a House of Prayer, staffed by the sisters for another 20 years. In 1990, the diocese assumed control of the grounds as a shrine and remodeled the grounds to welcome a group of Carmelite Sisters from Michigan, who founded the Carmel of the Holy Name of Jesus in 1992. In 2002, the Carmel moved to rural Denmark.

Apparition commission

As for Adele Brice’s reported encounters with Mary, Fr. Doerfler said that Bishop Ricken has appointed a commission to study the apparition. While each of the Bishops of Green Bay has supported the shrine as a place of prayer over the years, there has never been a formal declaration regarding the apparition.

Whatever the findings of that diocesan commission, though, the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help continues to be central to the regular prayer life of many people – some from as far away as Illinois.

Over its years, the chapel has filled many roles: boarding school, a home for children with handicaps, a place of refuge in disaster, a retreat house, monastery. And, whatever its main purpose at the time, prayer by many people at many times throughout the year, remains at its heart.

“I think that’s evidence of how the Lord wants to touch the lives of people and meet their spiritual needs in any given age,” said Fr. Doerfler.

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