OSHKOSH — If you’re looking for a day trip with a prayer element, Fr. Kevin Ripley suggests a drive to Ellis, a small community in Portage County, Wis. Located in the cemetery behind St. Martin Church, which is now closed, is the gravesite of Blessed James Miller.
Fr. Ripley, parochial vicar at St. Raphael the Archangel Parish, Oshkosh, and priest celebrant at St. Mary Parish, Omro, and St. Mary Parish, Winneconne, has made multiple visits to the gravesite. On July 24, he returned with a group.
“I was put in charge of young adult ministry (at the parish),” said Fr. Ripley, who also serves as chaplain at Lourdes Academy in Oshkosh. “We’ve done some things, and I thought young adults would be interested in the only gravesite in the state where you have to ask for the beatified person’s prayers. I decided to put it on the calendar.”
He was accompanied by Fr. Kyle Sladek, administrator of St. Mark Parish, Redgranite, and Sacred Heart Parish, Poy Sippi; seminarian Nathan Budde; Brendan Adolf, a member of St. Mary, Winneconne; and Tyler Kriegel and John Machi, members of St. Raphael Parish.
“I was hoping that those who came would experience the power of that reality that sainthood is attainable even for someone from Wisconsin and to be able to ask for James Miller’s prayers as well,” said Fr. Ripley.
De La Salle Christian Brother James Miller was recognized as a martyr by Pope Francis on Nov. 8, 2018. He was beatified on Dec. 7, 2019, at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
Blessed James Miller was born on Sept. 21, 1944, in Stevens Point. His family operated a dairy farm in Ellis. He attended Pacelli High School in Stevens Point for one year before joining the junior novitiate of the Christian Brothers and graduated from St. Mary’s College in Winona, Minn., in 1966. Brother Miller’s first venture to Central America was to Nicaragua where his service included supervising the construction of 10 rural elementary schools. He arrived in Guatemala in 1981.
On Feb. 13, 1982, Brother Miller, 37, was gunned down outside his religious community’s school for boys in Huehuetenango.
“I found out about James Miller from my advisor in seminary at Mundelein (near Chicago) who is very close with the Christian Brothers,” said Fr. Ripley. “He told me about this martyr (who was) going to be declared a ‘Blessed’ from my own state, just down the road. I had no clue. On my first break from seminary after hearing that, I visited his grave.”
During that visit, Fr. Ripley first arrived at Sacred Heart Church in Polonia, Brother Miller’s home parish. He discovered that the gravesite was in the family plot three quarters to a mile down the road.
“It’s the first one on the corner (behind St. Martin Church). All the Millers are together,” said Fr. Ripley. “His stone reads, ‘Brother James Alfred, Missionary, Killed in Guatemala.’ He was a very down to earth man, very simple, very humble. He was also quite smart and had that heart for the missions.”
During the recent visit, Fr. Ripley celebrated Mass at Sacred Heart Church, fulfilling a goal. His prayer requests for Blessed James Miller at the gravesite focused on schools, he said.
“I asked that he pray for our Catholic schools and for Lourdes Academy,” he said. “Pray for our staff as we get ready to start this fall and for all the students that they will learn the truth about their faith and God.”
Adolf said that he didn’t know much about this saint from Wisconsin prior to the trip.
“I wanted to take from the experience learning some knowledge about the life of Blessed James Miller, create third class relics for the first time and deepen my relationship with God and Blessed James Miller through prayer and fellowship with others who were at the site,” he said.
Asking for the saint’s prayers was a powerful moment, he added.
“This felt special and thus stood out to me because the soul of the body I was standing in front of, is currently in heaven, so close to God,” said Adolf.
Fr. Ripley plans to visit the gravesite several times a year.
“Whenever I’m going to pass through the Stevens Point area, I will definitely add another 15 minutes to my schedule and make a little detour,” he said. “I hope to bring more people there and encourage others to make that little stop. For a lot of people, to visit a saint’s gravesite, they need to drive a great distance. We have this opportunity just outside of our diocese (Diocese of La Crosse). I hope for an increased awareness for James Miller and devotions to ask for his prayers.”