The National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help is still open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but Masses are conducted in an empty chapel and livestreamed due to the coronavirus outbreak. According to the Roman Catholic Church, this is where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared in the United States. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
CHAMPION – They come by the thousands, pilgrims traveling to the only Marian apparition shrine in the United States, seeking solace in uncertain times.
The National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help remains open, though like pretty much every place of worship, it has changed.
Father John Broussard conducts Mass in an empty chapel, livestreaming religious services to anyone who wants to watch on their phones and computers or tune in later on the shrine’s website.
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The Eucharistic Healing Mass and Anointing of the Sick held on the last Saturday of each month is suspended at least until May.
Pews in the chapel and oratory are roped off with signs reminding people about social distancing, leaving every other pew open. Only 10 people are allowed in the chapel or oratory at the same time.
At the Stations of the Cross along the chapel’s walls are signs reminding people to look for the small white stickers adorned with black crosses on the floor, spaced 6 feet apart, so they don’t stand too close together while waiting for confession.
In the restrooms, notices on liquid soap dispensers suggest saying two Hail Mary’s — one for each hand — for the minimum recommended washing time of 20 seconds.
“We try to be a refuge here, to come and find peace when we’re all struggling together in tough times,” Broussard said this week.
On the peaceful grounds where trees have not yet started to bud, a Belgian immigrant named Adele Joseph Brise in 1859 reported seeing a vision of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, four years after she settled on the Green Bay peninsula.
The 28-year-old Brise said she saw a woman in white standing between two trees at three different times and the woman told her she was the Queen of Heaven who prays for the conversion of sinners. Brise said she was told to teach religion to children and she dedicated the rest of her life to doing that, traveling throughout the peninsula, going from house to house.
Eventually, a chapel, school and convent were built near the site of the apparitions in Robinsonville, a tiny community now named Champion located about 15 miles northeast of Green Bay. The name was changed at Brise’s suggestion because she had originally intended to join a convent in Champion, Belgium.
During the 1871 Peshtigo fire that decimated hundreds of thousands of acres in northeastern Wisconsin and killed an estimated 1,500 people, the shrine was a refuge for residents. They came, some with their animals, to pray with Brise, who by then was called Sister Adele. The fire came close but the chapel, buildings and every living creature inside them survived the conflagration.
Quite a few of the 200 volunteers who work at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help are descendants of the people who flocked here for safety from the Peshtigo fire, said Corrie Campbell, the shrine’s communications director and events planner.
Though the shrine was known to locals for more than a century, it wasn’t until 2010 that the Vatican, after extensive research, issued a decree naming it an official Marian apparition site, putting it in the same category as Our Lady of Lourdes in France, Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal and Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico.
A growing number of visitors, many from foreign countries, have come each year since 2010. Last year 160,000 people visited. Some return to the shrine on anniversaries of events important to them, perhaps the day they or a family member became a Christian.
“We embrace the fact we’re not a secret (to all but locals) anymore,” said Campbell.
Though the majority of visitors come in the summer, Lenten season is a busy time at the shrine. But not this year. It’s likely Easter services will be livestreamed.
An annual 21-mile pilgrimage walk from the Shrine of St. Joseph on the St. Norbert College campus in De Pere to the apparition site in Champion scheduled for May 2 was canceled. Last year, 3,000 people participated.
‘Someplace I need to go for peace’
Some pilgrims visit Wisconsin to see all three Marian shrines — the other two are the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians at Holy Hill and the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse — and end their journey in Champion, said Campbell. In addition to praying in the chapel and small oratory below the chapel, pilgrims visit Brise’s gravesite, buy religious books and gifts in the gift shop and cafe, and stroll the Rosary Walk.
Sue LeRoy, her husband Bernard and their 5-year-old granddaughter Amilya quietly walked the path on a sunny day this week, listening to religious music piped softly from speakers and birds. The Rosary Walk mirrors the prayer procession of those who sought refuge from the Peshtigo fire.
The tranquility draws Sue LeRoy, who usually visits once a month or so.
It’s “just someplace I need to go for peace,” said Sue LeRoy, who lives in Luxemburg. And now, “you can’t go to the churches” because of closures due to coronavirus.”
Added her husband: “These are challenging times.”
Danielle Fameree and her sister, Danae, drove from their home in Casco. They walked down the stairs into the oratory, lit mostly by white and purple candles that flickered in the silence, and sat in one of the pews. A photo of Pope Francis hung on the wall. A glass case contained wooden crutches.
“I just wanted to pray and get peace. It’s where I can talk to her,” said Danielle Fameree, referring to Mary.
With restrictions on travel from other countries as well as other states, it’s unknown just how much the number of visitors will drop this year at Our Lady of Good Help. No one knows how long religious services will be livestreamed, how long people must count the number of folks near them and stay several feet apart, how long they can’t hug each other or clasp hands in greeting.
What’s it like to say Mass to an empty church? ‘It’s definitely different,” said Broussard, a Houston native. “It’s an adjustment. It’s something we’re all going through together.”
Another change: a big upswing in the number of emailed prayer requests. Even though many people can’t visit or are afraid to come to the shrine because of worries about infection, it doesn’t mean they no longer need spiritual guidance and solace.
“This is a very natural problem we’re all experiencing. We try to find a supernatural solution,” said Broussard, who is writing his homilies mindful of the need to calm people who are anxious about something they can’t control.
“We definitely try to incorporate the times and how people can use their faith in difficult times,” Broussard added. “The thing about the Gospels is they’re timeless.”
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