Our own backyard

By Patricia Kasten | April 24, 2023

It’s amazing to find things in your own backyard.

For example, have you ever visited “the Shrine?”

I grew up in northeast Wisconsin and, until 1985, knew nothing about this rural Brown County site.

Today, it is the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion, the first and only approved Marian apparition site in the United States and Canada.

I did know about Holy Hill, the National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians. My parents and grandmother took me there often, to its eye-catching church set on a hill. By contrast, when I was a child, “The Chapel at Robinsonville,” as it was then called, was a small red-brick chapel, with a gravel parking lot between two farms on a long country highway. You really had to look for it and, even then, might miss the small sign among the silos.

Yet, it was here that Adele Brise said the Blessed Mother appeared to her three times in 1859. Adele’s father, Lambert, built the first chapel and Adele eventually started a school, aided by several other women.

After Adele died in 1896, “The Chapel” as it was called then, remained a boarding school, then a residence for children with special needs and, later, a high school novitiate. When I first learned of it, it was a “House of Prayer,” managed by the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross who had taken over the shrine’s care in 1902.

And, whatever its purpose, whatever the time, it has drawn the faithful.

Annual processions, like that for the feast of the Assumption (Aug. 15) and the anniversary of the Peshtigo Fire (the night of Oct. 8) saw large crowds. Both meant outdoor Masses, celebrated outside the present chapel (built in 1942) which was too small for the hundreds, even thousands, who came.

More changes were coming. The first I experienced was in 1992, when the shrine became home to a monastery of Carmelite nuns — who later moved in 2002 to rural Denmark.

After Bishop David Ricken arrived to lead the diocese in 2008, he learned of the shrine and, in 2009, he appointed a commission to study the apparitions. While each bishop of Green Bay had supported the shrine as a place of prayer, there had been no formal declaration regarding Adele’s experiences. Fr. John Doerfler, then diocesan chancellor and now Bishop of Marquette, Mich., led the study.

On Dec. 8, 2010, Bishop Ricken was able to declare the Marian apparitions of Adele Brise “worthy of belief.” In 2011, he asked the Fathers of Mercy to staff the shrine. In 2016, the bishops of the United States declared it a “national shrine.”

Now, as Bishop Ricken announced on April 20, the shrine has two more changes: its name is now the “National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion,” and it will have an official feast celebrated there each year. The first memorial Mass will be on Oct. 9.

Over the last dozen years, there have been additions at the site, some as simple (but very important)- as air-conditioning what was once called “the crypt” and is now “the Apparition Oratory,” to the building of Mother of Mercy Hall (with its stained-glass window of Adele and Mary) which allows larger numbers to gather for special Masses and events.

Despite the changes, many things remain unchanged at the shrine. There are still the annual processions. People still come with petitions — yes, many have reported graces granted, although none have been officially declared a miracle. The visitors’ book, with names from around the world, still stands by the stairs to the Oratory Chapel. The statue of the Queen of Heaven, restored two years ago, still smiles from above the back altar in the Apparition Chapel, as does the Our Lady of Grace statue downstairs.

And the same peaceful quiet remains — a hallmark for anyone who has visited there.

Whether you have been to the shrine or have been meaning to visit, I encourage you to go. You will certainly find something to touch your heart and soul — right here in your own backyard.

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