Fathers of Mercy arrive at shrine

By Sam Lucero | The Compass | July 27, 2011

Following the Dec. 8, 2010, declaration that the Marian apparitions to Adele Brise in 1859 were worthy of belief, Bishop Ricken began making plans to find a religious community of priests to staff the shrine. Bishop Ricken chose the Fathers of Mercy because their congregation’s apostolate matches the shrine’s historic mission: to preach and catechize, said Fr. John Doerfler, chancellor and vicar general of the diocese.

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Fr. Jewel Aytona, left, and Fr. Peter Stryker, members of the Fathers of Mercy religious congregation based in Auburn, Kent., arrived at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion July 7. Fr. Stryker serves as rector and Fr. Aytona is chaplain. The priests’ presence at the shrine means additional opportunities for Mass and the sacrament of reconciliation. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Bishop Ricken became acquainted with the Fathers of Mercy several years ago when he led a retreat for members of the congregation, added Fr. Doerfler. The congregation’s superior general, Fr. David Wilton, met with Bishop Ricken earlier this year and agreed to send two priests to staff the shrine.

The Fathers of Mercy also have historic ties to the diocese. The congregation staffed St. John the Evangelist Parish in Green Bay from 1888 to 1891 and built the first school on the church property.

Fr. Stryker, 53, serves as the shrine’s rector and Fr. Aytona, 28, is chaplain. Fr. Stryker recently completed a nine-year assignment as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Russellville, Kent. Fr. Aytona was ordained to the priesthood on June 4, 2011, and the shrine is his first assignment.

During an interview July 19, Fr. Stryker said he was amazed at the number of people who have visited the shrine in the 12 days that he and Fr. Aytona have been there.

“I’m sure that I have seen a few thousand people on this property in just under two weeks,” he said. “Just this past Wednesday there were four bus loads” of pilgrims.

Fr. Stryker said he has seen a deep spiritual hunger evident in the people coming to the shrine and believes the five-acre site, home to reported many miracles, is holy ground.

“We’re hearing a lot of confessions here,” he said. “A lot of people are coming. Today Fr. Jewel heard confessions from 10 to 10:45, and when he was preparing for Mass, he let me know that there was still a line. I was there hearing confessions through much of the Mass.”

The priests’ arrival at the shrine has meant more opportunities for Mass and for the sacrament of reconciliation. “We have an apostolate of mercy, especially the mercy that Jesus offers us in the Eucharist and also in the sacrament of reconciliation,” said Fr. Stryker.

Daily Mass is celebrated at 11 a.m., with an additional 8:30 a.m. Mass on Tuesdays and 8 a.m. Mass on Saturdays. Confession is offered Sunday through Friday from 10 to 10:45 a.m. and Saturdays from 8:45 to 10:45 a.m.

“Part of our job is to be available to the pilgrims, to bless their religious items and be available to talk to them,” added Fr. Stryker. “We’re getting into that routine.”

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Fathers of Mercy Jewel Aytona and Peter Stryker sit down for lunch with visitors to Our Lady of Good Help Shrine July 19. Many visitors, including Mila Chiong, left, Jocylene Tenchavez and Gene Rojos from Mundelein, Ill., are taking advantage of outdoor tables to enjoy picnic lunches while visiting the shrine. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Fr. Aytona said he has enjoyed meeting pilgrims from around the country. “My observation from them is that they’ve really experienced a powerful presence of Our Lady here and ultimately her son,” he said. “They have really witnessed the power of the apparition site and ultimately the sacraments.”

He called it a blessing to have the shrine as his first assignment. “The mission work here is really what I have been called to according to the gifts God has given me, preaching and dispensing the mercy of God in the sacraments.”

Fr. Stryker, who can now describe the shrine’s colorful history in detail to visitors, said he had never heard of Adele Brise, Champion or the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help until Dec. 8, 2010.

“I was watching FOX News in Kentucky and there was Bishop David Ricken giving that formal announcement about the apparitions,” he said. “After I was assigned to work here, I got on the shrine website and saw they had a DVD and ordered it.”

Through his research, Fr. Stryker said he has come to appreciate “why the local people, the faithful of Green Bay, have been coming here for years to pray the rosary, do the stations of the cross, visit the crypt and just come here. I can understand that.”

The priests are living in the rectory of St. Hubert Church in Rosiere, a 20-minute drive from Champion.

“The eventual plan is for us to live here on the shrine property,” said Fr. Stryker. “What they are going to be doing is renovating the second floor of this building and that renovation will not be completed until, the earliest, this coming spring. So we’re learning the neighborhood. We’re learning about where to find good food. We’ll be going to Joe Rouer’s (a popular local eating establishment in Duvall) soon and enjoy his hamburgers.”

Continued publicity about the shrine, including the recent ABC News special that aired nationally, will mean more visitors. Fr. Stryker said it is Bishop Ricken’s desire to preserve the shrine’s “peaceful atmosphere.”

“I don’t think he’s looking forward to a Holiday Inn across the street, but I think the bishop has in mind that eventually, perhaps a new shrine church would be built, (adding) on to the current chapel and crypt,” said Fr. Stryker.

Earlier this summer a new bathroom facility was completed. The building, which includes six bathroom stalls for women and equal accommodations for men, also offers a large hallway that gives pilgrims a place of shelter in sunny or inclement weather.

“It will be necessary to have a larger church and it will be necessary to have a visitor’s center, which would have facilities for people to dine,” added Fr. Stryker. “I think the bishop wants to see all of that change to be done in an integrated way.”

The shrine rector also complimented the service of Steve and Karen Tipps, who have been caretakers at the shrine for 18 years. “We want to thank the Tipps family for the beautiful work they have done here and for the magnificent job they’ve done here since Dec. 8, because their lives changed in a big way.”

Fr. Stryker extended an invitation to those who haven’t visited the shrine to do so.

“I urge everyone to take to heart the message of the shrine and that is to study and live and teach our holy Catholic faith,” he said. “It brings us happiness and it brings happiness to others; the kind of happiness that reaches into eternal life.”

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