ALLOUEZ — Don Warden will always share an anniversary with Adele Brise, the Belgian immigrant to whom the Blessed Mother appeared in 1859 at what is now the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion.
Warden started his job as the chief operations officer at the shrine on Oct. 9 — which is celebrated as Apparition Day at the shrine in rural Brown County. He said he is “looking forward to getting to know and working with our team,” as well as interacting with thousands of pilgrims who come to visit the shrine each year.
In his new position, Warden is responsible for seeing that the mission of the shrine is coordinated and carried out by staff and volunteers and coordinated with the diocesan offices. He is also overseeing the shrine’s future enhancement projects. The work includes interacting with the pilgrims who visit the shrine every day.
“You hear so many stories,” he said of pilgrims. “Stories that they bring to the shrine and stories that they’ve had while at the shrine. While they all have a common theme — so that they could all be part of the same story — they are all so unique and personal.”
He said he spends time each day at the shrine’s apparition site, “just offering this vocation up. Everybody who has been down there knows what that’s like down there.”
On Dec. 8, 2010, Bishop David Ricken declared Adele Brise’s visions of Mary as “worthy of belief,” making the shrine the only approved Marian apparition in the United States.
Warden, who grew up in Pulaski, remembers visiting the shrine with his parents and 10 siblings, but only infrequently. His grandmother had been a frequent visitor. It wasn’t until after Warden and his wife, Rose, were married that the shrine became a regular part of their lives.
“We would do an annual trip on Jan. 1,” Warden said. “On New Year’s Day, we would go up there with the kids and consecrate our family to Our Lady of Good Help. Little did I know where that consecration would lead.”
Warden comes to the shrine after five and one-half years at Elizabeth Ministry International, a worldwide ministry based in Kaukauna, that provides hope and healing on issues related to childbearing, sexuality and relationships. He and Rose first discovered Elizabeth Ministry through their own experience of miscarriage. Their children include Cody, Logan, Hannah, Isaac, Leo and several pre-born children.
Warden first served as a program manager for Elizabeth Ministry’s Reclaim Sexual Health and then for two years as Elizabeth Ministry’s executive director. His work earned him The Compass’ Faith That Works Award in 2017. Prior to that, Warden spent more than 20 years at Lord’s Dental Studio, one of the largest dental labs in the United States.
It’s a varied background, but Warden believes it’s all part of God’s plan.
“You kind of reflect back (when you start a new position),” he said. “And I know now that everything you do and everything that happens to you is preparation for that which is going to come. When we get to the point where we can embrace that without fear and trepidation — which is not always easy — it’s going to bear fruit. It’s trusting in God’s divine economy. Everything good and bad works to his ultimate plan.”
As he walks around the shrine, acquainting himself with the people who work and volunteer there, the Fathers of Mercy who serve there and the pilgrims, Warden reminds himself of how anyone who serves at the shrine approaches their mission: “You do it on your knees. You do it with a great amount of trust. And you do what’s in front of you. You take the skills and talents and abilities that God has given you, and you use them to do the best at whatever is in front of you at that moment, which is really the secret to God’s will. To live in God’s will is to understand the present moment.”
To be part of the only approved Marian apparition site in the United States could be mind-boggling, but Warden has ways of keeping his perspective.
“I have a weekly routine, where I say the Divine Mercy chaplets while on the grounds – and to just look around. You’re out in nature, where you start thinking about the earth on a bigger scale. You see the wind and the sky and the trees, and it hits you that the mother of our God decided, at some point, that this was the place where she would step out of time and make herself known to Adele and make herself known to the people here. … You think, ‘Why? Why this place?’ I’m sure the people in Fatima felt the same when that first happened. And at Lourdes. ‘Why this place? Why this time?’ You know that there are reasons for all that; we just don’t understand.”
But that huge vision of God working in time is also comforting.
“People ask me ‘How’s it going?’” he said. “On one hand, it’s rather intimidating, but on the other hand, it’s consoling to know that Mary came here and obviously had a plan.”
He admits that discerning that plan can be a challenge, but advises maintaining “a childlike wonder in imagining what Mary wants” and “the humility to always know that we may be wrong.”