MILWAUKEE — For more than 150 years, Catholics have sought solace and miracles at a site near Green Bay, Wis., where Mary, the mother of Jesus, is said to have appeared to a young Belgian woman in the fall of 1859.
On Wednesday, Green Bay Bishop David Ricken sanctioned the visions as worthy of belief, making them the first authenticated apparitions of Mary in the United States, according to the diocese and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Ricken made the announcement at an invitation-only Mass that drew about 250 supporters to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help near Champion, Wis., about 17 miles northeast of Green Bay. He issued a decree encouraging Catholics to make pilgrimages to the shrine "to seek the intercession of the Blessed Mother and to draw closer to her son, Jesus Christ."
"I was drawn, when I first came here, to the simplicity of the message given to Adele by the Blessed Mother," said Ricken, who commissioned a study of the apparitions by three Marian experts in January 2009.
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"It struck me that they're the same needs we face today—for prayer, conversion of sinners, evangelization."
Tradition holds that Mary, ablaze in light and clothed in dazzling white, appeared to Adele Brise three times in October 1859, giving her a two-fold mission: to pray for the conversion of sinners and to teach children about the faith.
Brise responded by traveling the region preparing children to receive the sacraments, according to the shrine's website. She later established a Catholic school and a religious community known as the Third Order of Franciscan women. Initially vilified as a fraud by some clergy, she was threatened with excommunication and examined by physicians to gauge her sanity.
No miracles have been officially attributed to Brise. But the shrine's history includes stories of faith healings and miraculous events. One tells of the Peshtigo, Wis., fire of 1871 when Brise, her fellow teachers and nearby families huddled in the chapel to pray as the blazes raged around them. When it ended, the entire area was decimated, it says, except for the chapel, school and convent and the five acres consecrated to Mary.
Apparitions are not considered church doctrine and as such there is no obligation for Catholics to believe them, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
To substantiate an apparition, investigators must weigh a number of factors including the content of the revelation; the receiver's moral character, mental state and obedience to church authority; and the resulting devotions and spiritual work it inspires.
Local bishops have the authority to validate apparitions, though the Vatican or the bishops' conference can intervene if asked.
In issuing Wednesday's decree, Ricken said there was sufficient evidence to suggest that the Brise's visions "may be of a supernatural origin."
Wednesday's decree puts the shrine theologically on par with such well-known pilgrimage sites as Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal, said Father Emery de Gaal, who teaches Mariology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill. However, those are of international, rather than local, significance because of the scope of their spiritual messages, he said.
Wednesday was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a Catholic holy day dedicated to Mary.