A conversation with Bishop Ricken about the Apparition of Our Lady of Good Help
“The apparitions and message here in Champion were very easy to evaluate. It was not difficult to ascertain the soundness of doctrine of Mary’s apparition here.”
As was detailed in Part I of this report, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a 28-year-old Belgian immigrant woman named Adele Brise on October 8 and 9, 1859 in Champion, Wisconsin. The Mother of God instructed Adele to pray for the conversion of sinners, to receive the sacraments of Holy Communion and confession, and to teach the children of this country the Catholic faith. Shortly thereafter, Adele told what she had seen and heard, and dutifully began her teaching mission. Her sincerity and commitment to teaching the catechism inspired many, and a church and school were built at the site of the apparitions. The shrine in Champion has been a place of devotion ever since, and a place of many reported miracles of healing and conversion. The most famous miracle was when the grounds of the sanctuary and the lives of the many gathered there in prayer were spared from the ravages of the Peshtigo Fire on the 12th anniversary of the apparitions, in 1871.
I was able to visit the shrine on pilgrimage and was touched by its simplicity. It is located 17 miles northeast of the city of Green Bay in a very rural area. The Gothic shrine church built in 1942 is smaller that my own parish church; it seats only 300. Beneath the sanctuary of the church is the Apparition Oratory, where a statute of Our Lady of Grace stands surrounded by devotional candles and flowers on the exact spot where the Mother of God appeared to Adele Brise between a maple and a hemlock tree. Just outside the oratory entrance is a little cemetery where the visionary is buried.
I was impressed to see at the shrine a relic that is De arboribus—“from the trees”—that is, from the maple and hemlock trees Our Lady stood between when she appeared to Adele. Also, I will never forget the fervency of prayer I saw in a young wheelchair-bound woman in the Apparition Oratory. When I left the oratory to walk the grounds of the sanctuary, I overheard a young man speaking on his cell phone to doctors. When I returned to the oratory for one last moment at the hallowed site, the man came to me to ask for my prayers for his wife who, I learned, was the woman in the wheelchair. They had come to the shrine together praying for a miracle. The many crutches left behind in the Apparition Oratory are a testament to those who have come before them seeking the same.
There are many clear instances like these which reveal a local cult of devotion in the Diocese of Green Bay to Mary under the title of Our Lady of Good Help. Upon being named the bishop of Green Bay in 2008, David Ricken took a keen interest in the shrine’s history. In January 2009 he followed through with the intention of his predecessor, Bishop David Zubik, and initiated a canonical process to investigate the authenticity of the apparitions to Adele. As a part of the process, three experts in Mariology submitted to him their findings on the supernatural character of the apparitions. Taking them under consideration and after much prayer, Bishop Ricken formally approved the apparitions of Our Lady of Good Help. His decree stated that with moral certainty they “exhibit the substance of supernatural character” and are to be considered “worthy of belief.” He issued this decree while visiting the shrine on December 8, 2010, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the patroness of the United States of America.
After my visit to the shrine I was able to meet with the bishop in his office at the diocesan chancery in Green Bay, where he was kind enough to answer my questions.
Father Seán Connolly, for CWR: Your Excellency, I would like to know when it was that you first learned about the story of Our Lady’s apparitions to Adele Brise. Was it before you were appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to be the bishop of Green Bay in 2008, or was it upon assuming this office?
Bishop David Ricken: After I was appointed here before my installation, I took a little trip with some of the staff members, just to see the major highlights of the diocese, and they were telling me about the story behind the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion. I was deeply impressed by what I heard and by the sense of peace that I felt at the modest shrine. It was the first time I ever heard of the story, a beautiful discovery for me just before I was about to assume the position as shepherd of this diocese. I was curious as to why I had never heard about the apparitions before and why more don’t know about it. It was explained to me that there was great devotion to the shrine in the diocese throughout its history, but that it has remain localized within the northeastern area of Wisconsin.
CWR: What made you consider an investigative process to determine whether the claimed apparitions were authentic?
Bishop Ricken: After my installation, when “clearing the desk” of matters I needed to address as the bishop of Green Bay, I reviewed a letter left for me by my predecessor, Bishop David Zubik, who had actually already begun an investigation process into the claimed apparitions. It was Bishop Zubik who was the originator of the study, and he had just gathered all the necessary information over the course of his final year as the bishop of Green Bay. In his time here he came to understand the sensus fidelium—“faith of the people”—that the people of Green Bay were devoted to Our Lady of Good Help, believed strongly in her apparitions and message, and received many graces from their time in prayer at the shrine in Champion. So now having read Bishop Zubik’s letter I began to witness for myself the people of this diocese’s devotion to Our Lady of Good Help, and upon my own visit again to the shrine, I began to wonder why the process was never carried out by my predecessors until Bishop Zubik began it. The fact is, however, there was no formal process established by the Vatican until 1967. For instance, the bishop of Lourdes—to approve the apparitions that took place there to St. Bernadette—devised his own process, and did an excellent job. When I was there on pilgrimage I was able to see the document of his approval and was impressed by his thorough process of gathering information before he declared the apparitions of Our Lady there to be authentic. But I suppose it can be said that in a way, my predecessors did approve of the apparitions at Champion, at least tacitly, because every bishop always had Mass at the Shrine on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, and thousands of people would come. To this day, two to three thousand come, depending on the year, for this feast.
CWR: Tell us a bit about the process you oversaw to declare these apparitions authentic.
Bishop Ricken: Not until 1967 did the Church present to local ordinaries a formal process to follow in discerning the authenticity of supernatural occurrences such as these. I wrongly assumed that it was the responsibility of the Holy See to conduct this study, but learned that they won’t make a step until the diocesan bishop declares his approval, which really shocked me. So I felt I had a responsibility to, at last, formally investigate the alleged apparitions because so many of the faithful in my diocese were devoted to them. I spoke with Cardinal Burke about it. He had visited the shrine several times and encouraged me to go ahead and do the study. So we followed through that process issued by the Holy See, step by step. We had to remain in close contact with the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, which has the competence over such matters. We presented to them all our findings and each step of the way they replied with a letter that in essence would say: “Thank you for informing us of the process, continue on.” A case like the alleged apparitions at Medjugorje are very complex. There is so much material to review, lots of controversies.
The apparitions and message here in Champion were very easy to evaluate. It was not difficult to ascertain the soundness of doctrine of Mary’s apparition here. It is traditional and orthodox. The message is very solid, it doesn’t mislead people, and there are no suspicious or strange phenomena surrounding the shrine. There are no bad fruits associated with it. It’s a beautiful message needed for our times. We had three Marian experts, theologians, who evaluated all of our documents, and all the history, and it took them about one year to complete and provide an executive summary for me to review. Two of them were very positive, and the other played the “devil’s advocate.”
CWR: How long did the process last?
Bishop Ricken: It took 18 months. We began by gathering all of the historical documents and records, and presented this evidence to the theological experts. They took about a year to evaluate it. It is important they remain anonymous, but I remember one saying to me: “You know, I read a lot of cases like this. Many of them, most of them, are fraudulent, but this one is not.” And then he said, “Good luck.” Because in the end, the final decision rests with me in my capacity as shepherd of this diocese. Can I, should I, in conscience, declare these events to be authentic? Is is true? Would declaring them to be [authentic] help or hinder people’s faith and the mission of the Church? In the end, I had to make this decision.
CWR: What was the greatest hurdle, if there was one, to your affirmation that these apparitions were authentic?
Bishop Ricken: The expert who was in the position of the “devil’s advocate” focused on an incident that is certainly no secret in the history of the events surrounding the occurrences in Champion. One year when the large crowds arrived for the Feast of the Assumption, along with them came unscrupulous vendors. This sullied the reputation of Adele, her claims, and her teaching apostolate. It didn’t help that in the carnival celebration-like atmosphere, some got drunk and behaved scandalously. Priests began to doubt and the first bishop of Green Bay placed the shrine on interdict. All pilgrimages were forbidden; Adele was forced to tun over the keys to the shrine, and was told not to speak about the apparitions or even to receive Holy Communion or go to confession.
When the bishop attempted to close the school, this made Sister Adele indignant. Now she had to speak up. If the bishop’s commands remained focused on her, she would gladly offer the suffering to God as a sacrifice in humility and obedience. But now the bishop’s decrees were obstructing the will of the Mother of God that the “children of this wild country” be taught “what they should know for salvation.” Apparently her words to the bishop warning him that he would be responsible before God for the damage done to the souls of her school children caused him to reconsider. Soon the interdict was lifted, the school was reopened and the keys to the shrine were returned. Not long after that, under the next bishop, pilgrimages were allowed to resume again, and steadily grew. Before the interdict, it was estimated that 1,500 pilgrims would come to the shrine for the Feast of the Assumption (Sister Adele’s favorite of the year), but after the interdict was lifted that number grew to 3,000.
CWR: What made you go ahead and finally issue the decree on the authenticity of the apparitions?
Bishop Ricken: After the evaluations of the experts were submitted to me I took about six months to pray about it. I wanted to give it the proper attention such a declaration deserves. I didn’t consider it automatic. But as I kept thinking about the evidence and these expert’s assessments, I thought: this is something the Church needs, this is something the world needs. And I certainly didn’t want to stand in the way of what the Blessed Mother wants. So it’s a big step, and I was really nervous about it at first, because I knew it was very important, and I didn’t want it to be about me, at all. This is about the Blessed Mother and the mission of the Church. In the end, I view the events of 1859 in Champion as entirely reasonable. It makes sense that Heaven would want this message to be given to the world, especially in the direct context of pioneers in the American Midwest at risk of losing the Faith in a new country without parish structures established near them yet. There is nothing in the message that is contrary to the Deposit of Faith. It is simple yet profound, and I believe the world needs to hear this message, especially in our own day.
CWR: Was there a personal attraction to this story and the message of Our Lady’s apparitions in Champion that drew you to take this project on?
Bishop Ricken: Yes. What struck me were the consistency of people’s belief in her, the simplicity of the location, and the reports of miracles that have consistently been attributed to prayer at the shrine through the years. Even when I arrived as bishop of this diocese in 2008, people were reporting miraculous healings, which was to me an encouragement to go forth, because this could be something that Mary wanted to use to bring people to her Son. That’s her whole mission: to bring people to her Son. Before I affirmed the authenticity of these apparitions in 2010, the shrine averaged about 10,000 pilgrims a year. Now it’s up to 160,000 a year, so it’s definitely meeting a spiritual need.
For instance, Guadalupe is very sophisticated theologically. This is not that. The message and significance of Our Lady of Good Help is very simple: “Catechize the children. Teach them the sign of the cross. Teach them what’s necessary for faith. Prepare them for the sacraments, etc.” These are the bare basics of the Catholic faith, very simple, basic things. As I was reflecting on this message, it became clear to me that this message of the Mother of God given at Champion is what our country and the Church throughout the world really need.
CWR: Given what you just said, do you see it as providential that it took 151 years for this apparition to be declared authentic so that maybe, Our Lady’s message would become more widely known in our day and age?
Bishop Ricken: The need for evangelization and good, sound catechesis is so critical for the Church today. I think it is a real possibility that the Blessed Mother interceded so the decree on her apparitions’ authenticity could be saved for this day, when so many families need many basic, simple explanations of the Faith. America has become mission territory again. We have to re-evangelize even our own. We have to start start all over. The Blessed Mother’s simple but direct message is a call for the conversion of sinners, and even for the offering of the reception of Holy Communion for the conversion of sinners. Our Lady of Good Help is calling our society back to her Son. [Mary] said, “Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation.” [Adele] went and did just that. Adele went from home to home to home, and she would exchange her chores during the day, for the children to be able to be free in the late afternoon and evening so she could catechize and teach them. The pedagogy that she used was clever. At first, she taught in the homes, which were very small, so the parents were able to hear the lessons as well. In that way she was actually evangelizing the whole family. And I think that’s a beautiful insight that was confirmed by Vatican II. The parents are the first catechists of the children in the ways of the Faith. They are the first teachers. So that’s another thing I thought: this is a timely message (it was always timely but it is especially timely for today). There has been a strong emphasis on Catholic education in Diocese of Green Bay. I think most of that is attributable to her and to those apparitions; it just kept growing and growing. Now we’re coming on some tough times, because the schools are kind of faltering, but we have a new strategic plan now, new ways of praying about these schools, getting them more engaged, connecting them to the parish more. … The good Catholic education that’s existed here in our diocese, I think, is a fruit of the Blessed Mother, but also she’s here now to help us in a new way: to do the basic, fundamental catechesis and evangelization.
CWR: What do you think is the most important element of Our Lady of Good Help’s message for our times?
Bishop Ricken: [Unlike] at Guadalupe or Lourdes, she didn’t call for the building of a shrine. Here in Champion, she wants us to do this with our lives. Through evangelization and mission, Our Lady wants us to build up the Catholic faith within souls. In our time, when there is so much ignorance about basic teachings of the Church, the Mother of God issued a call here in Champion for us to go out and teach what souls need to know for their salvation. We should take up this call with zeal.
CWR: Are there any plans for expansion and making Our Lady’s message given at Champion more widely known?
Bishop Ricken: We’re looking to purchasing land around the area [of the shrine]. We want to keep that primitive feeling about it, so we’re going to have to build a larger church, a welcome center, maybe a catechetical center someday, because we’re going to need that, just to take care of the parishioners there and the pilgrims that are coming. So we do have a plan. I learned, though, that we were trying to come out of the gate too quickly, and the Blessed Mother doesn’t like that. So the principle I learned from her, is: to take the step when the need is there. We don’t want to anticipate things too much. This is not a case of “If you build it, they will come.” Our Lady doesn’t work that way. We will always wait to see what the need is. If people are responding, that’s a fruit. If they keep responding, then we’ll take that very seriously. So we are going to build. We are having the groundbreaking this week for a multipurpose building to help us for the next few years, until we are able to acquire more land and make more solid the campus plan, and that sort of thing. This should help us for the next several years. We will build a larger church when the need is there. That’s what I feel Mary has taught me in prayer—not go out ahead of her. To let the need present itself, and once it presents itself, then take the next step.
CWR: The figure of the visionary, Adele Brise, is very compelling. She lived a try holy life in courageous obedience to Our Lady’s call. Has there been any consideration of pursuing her canonization? Is there a local cult of devotion to her as a saint here in Green Bay?
Bishop Ricken: You asked the perfect question to understand this. What I love about Adele Brise was that she was a young adult, and this is the age group that we really need to reach today. She was a young adult who was very obedient to the Holy Spirit and to the Blessed Mother, and she responded. We are indeed, definitely, thinking about canonization. I don’t hear a lot of people saying that they pray to her and have received answers to their prayers through her intercession. I think that will come, but it’s not my position to push this. There is already a message from Our Lady that we are trying to foster among the faithful. But I am certainly open to the possibility of a canonization process beginning for Adele. At the same time, however, I think Adele wouldn’t want people praying to her. As she did in life, she would always direct attention to the Blessed Mother. Similar to Saint Andre Bessette in Montreal—he was always giving credit to Saint Joseph for a favor received. I think that was a challenge with his own canonization process, because it wasn’t always clear as to whether the favor was granted through the intercession of Saint Joseph, or the now-Saint Andre.
CWR: What is a final message you would like to give to all who will read this interview regarding the events that occurred in your diocese in 1859?
Bishop Ricken: God has tremendous love for his creation, for all human beings, of every generation. The Mother of Jesus has said yes to him her whole life, and she constantly says yes to him from Heaven. Here in Champion—I don’t know why, but this place was chosen. It is similar to Lourdes and Fatima; it is rural. Beautiful nature surrounds it. The people here are simple farmers and faithful. Our Lady appeared here with this simple message, because she really wants to bring people to her Son. She wants them to know the catechism and to be prepared for the sacraments. This is the same mission of the Church throughout the generations. In every generation it is done a little bit differently, but the message is always the the same. Salvation comes through the Catholic Church, which guides us in growing in our relationship with Jesus through Mary.
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About Father Seán Connolly 23 Articles
Father Seán Connolly is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. He attended Saint Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, where he received a Bachelor of Sacred Theology as well as a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts. He currently serves as parochial vicar at the Parish of St. Joseph in Middletown, New York.