During May—the month of Mary—we’ve been looking at different Marian devotions, shrines and apparitions from around the world, and the unique stories and miracles associated with them. In last week’s instalment, we heard stories of Marian apparitions in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. This week, we learn about the strange and surprising encounters people had in the United States and Ireland, and some of their miraculous, life-changing features.
Champion, Wisconsin, is the only one site in the USA where a bishop-approved Marian apparition has been recorded. It was here that Our Lady appeared to a young Adele Brise in 1859. Born in Belgium and blind in one eye, Adele had always wanted to become a religious sister and teach the faith. At first, she thought this would happen in Belgium, but when her parents announced their plans to emigrate to America, everything changed.
The first apparition of Mary happened while Adele was walking in the woods. She saw a woman standing silently between two trees, dressed all in white. She was unsure who the woman was or what sort of spiritual encounter this might have been, so at the advice of a priest, when she encountered the woman again a few days later, she asked, ‘In God’s name, who are you and what do you want of me?’
This time, the woman was radiant. She had a yellow sash around her waist and a crown of stars, and was surrounded by such bright light that Adele couldn’t look at her directly.
In answer to Adele’s question, the woman said, ‘I am the Queen of Heaven who prays for the conversion of sinners, and I wish you to do the same.’ Adele fell to her knees in the company of her friends, who, unable to see Mary, wondered what was happening. Although they couldn’t see her, the friends knelt in reverence too.
Mary gave Adele a mission: ‘Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation.’ Adele, aware of her own limited understanding of the faith at such a young age, questioned how she would do this.
‘Teach them their catechism,’ Mary said, ‘how to sign themselves with the cross, and how to approach the sacraments; that is what I wish you to do. Go and fear nothing, I will help you.’
After this encounter, Adele went on to become a missionary. Undeterred by obstacles of weather or ridicule, she travelled far and wide, going from home to home to teach children the faith. Often, she would do household chores in exchange for parents’ permission to allow her to teach their children. Years later, a number of women accompanied her on this mission, and they met with enough generosity that they were able to build a convent, school and chapel.
Over the chapel’s entrance were inscribed the words, in French, ‘Our Lady of Champion, pray for us.’
Then, on 8 October 1871, one of the most destructive fires in US history broke out in Wisconsin, burning more than a million acres of land and killing nearly 3000 people. Many people fled to the chapel for protection. Adele, the sisters and all those who had fled there spent the whole night praying the Rosary, singing hymns and processing with a statue of Our Lady, begging protection from the fire—and protected they were.
Early the next morning, a heavy rainfall came, extinguishing the fire, and it was found that the convent, school and chapel were the only things not destroyed within a massive radius. According to a witness at the time, Fr Peter Pernin, everything consecrated to Mary ‘shone like an emerald isle in a sea of ashes’. The miracle of that night, known as the Miracle of the Fire, has been celebrated every year since.
In 2009, Bishop David L Ricken of Green Bay opened a formal investigation into the apparitions, declaring them ‘worthy of belief’ in 2010. In 2016, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops declared the grounds of the chapel a National Shrine, the first in US history.
A big factor in this recognition—apart from the apparitions being free from theological and doctrinal error—was the character and witness of Adele Brise herself. Bishop Ricken wrote:
There is nothing in the person and character of Adele Brise that would question the veracity of the substance of her account. In fact, her personal character is a major factor in favor of the recognition of the apparition.
Thousands of pilgrims continue to travel there, and true to the original mission of Adele Brise, the Shrine has a special focus on teaching the faith and fostering an encounter with Jesus in the sacraments.
The apparitions at Knock are unique: not only was Our Lady seen, but other saints also appeared, and no words were spoken or messages given. It was a silent apparition lasting just over two hours.
On a wet August evening in 1879, two women, Mary Byrne and Mary McLoughlin, were on their way home when they stopped by St John the Baptist church and noticed something strange about the gable (a triangular section of wall at the end of a pitched roof). Inside, they saw several figures around the altar: Our Lady, St Joseph and St John the Evangelist. Atop the altar was also a lamb in front of the cross, surrounded by angels.
In their excitement, they went out and told everyone they knew close by about the apparition, and a total of 15 people witnessed the event. The apparition has been recreated at the Knock Shrine in this memorial:
In one of the witness statements, a man named Patrick Hill describes circling around the apparitions in wonder, saying, ‘The figures were full and round as if they had a body and life.’ So close was he that he could see Mary’s ‘eyes, the balls, the pupils and the iris of each’.
More than one witness, including Patrick Hill, commented on St Joseph’s greying beard, and according to Mary Byrne:
The Virgin stood erect, with eyes raised to heaven, her hands elevated to the shoulders or a little higher, the palms inclined slightly towards the shoulders or bosom. She wore a large cloak of a white colour, hanging in full folds and somewhat loosely around her shoulders, and fastened to the neck.
She wore a crown on the head, rather a large crown, and it appeared to me somewhat yellower than the dress or robes worn by Our Blessed Lady. In the figure of St Joseph the head was slightly bent, and inclined towards the Blessed Virgin, as if paying her respect. It represented the saint as somewhat aged, with grey whiskers and greyish hair.
Two commissions were convened to investigate the apparitions, one from 1879 to 1880, and the other from 1935 to 1936. Both investigations judged the apparitions worthy of belief. Knock Shrine is now Ireland’s International Eucharistic and Marian Shrine, visited by thousands every year.
Although no message was given, the apparitions themselves are recognised to be rich in biblical and theological symbolism. Mary, St Joseph and all the saints bear witness to only person: the lamb who was slain to take away the sin of the world.
Melbourne Catholic01 May 2023
Melbourne Catholic01 June 2022