By Erik Eckholm, New York Times
CHAMPION, Wis. — In France, the shrine at Lourdes is surrounded by hundreds of hotels and has received as many as 45,000 pilgrims in a single day. Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Mexico, draws millions of fervent worshipers a year.
Now, a little chapel among the dairy farms here, called Our Lady of Good Help, has joined that august company in terms of religious status, if not global fame. This month, it became one of only about a dozen sites worldwide, and the first in the United States, where apparitions of the Virgin Mary have been officially validated by the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1859, the year after Mary is said to have appeared in Lourdes, a Belgian immigrant here named Adele Brise said she was visited three times by Mary, who hovered between two trees in a bright light, clothed in dazzling white with a yellow sash around her waist and a crown of stars above her flowing blond locks. As instructed, Ms. Brise devoted her life to teaching Catholic beliefs to children.
On Dec. 8, after a two-year investigation by theologians who found no evidence of fraud or heresy and a long history of shrine-related conversions, cures and other signs of divine intervention, Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay declared “with moral certainty” that Ms. Brise did indeed have encounters “of a supernatural character” that are “worthy of belief.”
Lourdes-like hordes have not yet gathered, but since the weighty decree a growing stream of visitors, some driving several hours, has found its way here to pray and revel in what many say is the palpable presence of Mary. Calls are coming in from as far as New York from church groups that want to visit by the busload, and local church officials are wondering whether they thought too small when they built a new parking lot — planned well before this month — with 75 spaces.
Debbie Banda, 46, and her mother, Mary Young, 75, who live nearby, learned of the shrine and the bishop’s decision from the news, and came for the first time on Wednesday.
“It’s incredible — she’s here, you just feel it,” Ms. Banda said after praying in the crypt chapel, said to be on the spot of the apparitions. As they passed a statue of Mary in white, just as described by Ms. Brise, Ms. Banda was overcome with emotion, weeping and hugging her mother. The two of them went back to pray some more.
“We need the Virgin Mary’s protection, and for her to keep an eye on our soldiers, too,” said Ms. Young, whose sons have served in the Middle East. “We’ll definitely be coming back.”
Catholic leaders described the decree in Wisconsin as a bolt of joy at a trying time for the Catholic church, which is troubled by revelations of sex abuse.
“This is a gift to the believers,” said the Rev. Johann Roten, director of the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton.
“It would be devious to say that this was somehow pulled out of the attic to exorcise the problems of the church today,” Father Roten said in a telephone interview. “But hopefully this will have a beneficial impact on the people, showing them that there are ways of living with faith that are very pure.”
The Diocese of Green Bay is under fire from lawyers in an abuse-related lawsuit, who charge that it has obstructed justice by destroying potentially incriminating files on former priests. The diocese says it has cooperated fully with law enforcement and discarded psychiatric records of deceased priests as required by federal privacy laws.
Bishop Ricken, in an interview at his office in Green Bay, noted that the church has a tradition of taking its time with such cases. Over the years, he said, his predecessors had implicitly endorsed the shrine by holding services there and encouraging people to visit.
When he moved to Green Bay in 2008, he said, “I was struck by how many stories I heard of answered prayers” — resolved family and employment problems as well as medical cures — and he decided to start a formal investigation.
“People have a hunger for the spiritual, and right here in our backyard was a source to meet that need,” Bishop Ricken said. The church’s scandals did not influence his decision, he said, but if the shrine can become a source of hope and healing for people, including victims of errant priests, “that would be beautiful.”
The Vatican gives primary responsibility for evaluating apparitions to local bishops. Wary of fraud, the church is generally reluctant even to investigate claims.
Over the 20th century, some 386 major apparitions of Mary were reported at a level beyond local rumors, said Father Roten, who has been an investigator in purported sightings. About 75 of those were studied, and at most a dozen were recognized as valid, he said. Increasingly, he said, the church makes use of psychiatric examinations and brain scans to see if people making claims are mentally healthy and not having hallucinations.
That kind of examination was not possible, of course, for Ms. Brise, and Bishop Ricken said that his panel of three theological specialists had considered a host of indirect factors in concluding that her sighting was credible, following guidelines set by the Vatican in 1978.
By all reports, he said, Ms. Brise was humble and honest and faithfully carried out Mary’s mandate to serve the church throughout her life. In one striking sign of a divine presence, he said, the shrine’s grounds and the terrified crowd who gathered there were spared the flames of the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871, which devoured the surrounding lands and homes and caused more than 1,200 deaths. Her account of Mary’s apparition and message was consistent with accepted cases.
The dozens of families and individuals who stopped to pray at the shrine on Wednesday afternoon seemed to have no doubts at all about the apparitions.
“There’s a lot of power here,” said Theresa Vandermause, 45, who for years has made a weekly pilgrimage to the shrine with her friend Judy Deprey, 65. “You can feel the presence of Mary, and it feels like she’s listening to you.”
The two women were pleased that the church had finally declared Mary’s visits here to be real, but said that the decree had not really changed anything.
“We knew that already!” they declared.