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If a huge swath of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan was worthy of a chastisement -- which struck as the greatest wildfire in history (in 1871) -- what was it that deserved such a calamity, and more to the point, in comparison to that, how do we currently stand?

For that's what happened, isn't it -- according to the first apparition ever formally approbated by a diocese in the U.S. or Canada?

A trial by fire incinerated 1.2 million acres around Green Bay and moved like an infernal tornadic system burning even those who sought refuge in wells or ponds and turning sand to glass but sparing a small chapel dedicated precisely to that apparition.

This is stuff that makes it beyond the imagination of Hollywood.

A chastisement was foreseen by the Blessed Mother in 1859, a year after Lourdes, when she appeared in shining immaculate white to a devout Belgian immigrant named Adele Brisé, who was at the shrine processing a statue of Mary ("Our Lady of Good Help") and reciting a Rosary as flames roared to the very outer palings of the shrine and there stopped, leaving only charred scars and the shrine as an emerald oasis in a sea of ashes, as they say.

We visited the site last week. There are no more signs of the long-ago fire. There is a newer shrine, of course. But the landscape still bears similarities to how it was more than a century and a half ago.

There is the woodland: Deer stand stockstill, such that onlookers place bets on whether they're statues. There are the farms: barren like tundra in the winter but verdant with gorgeous pastures come spring. There are the silos -- limned these days with aluminum but still with the signature grain as in yesteryear, as in 1859, when Adele was on her way with a sack of it to a grist mill.

That was the year of the first apparition that has met with full diocesan approval in the history of the United States and Canada in this part of Wisconsin about twenty miles from Green Bay known as Robinsonville or now "Champion" that sits humbly in a setting that evokes the peasant lifestyle with which many of us, after a modern purification, may become more familiar some day.

In the main church, left of the altar, is a statue that had been given to Adele (after one her prayer group had used caught fire on another occasion), and next to it behind the display glass is a reliquary with pieces of wood from the two trees between which Mary appeared (maple and hemlock).

We are offering a new video about it. It is a church that seats perhaps 240. Below is the crypt of the apparition. This is actually where the trees had been (Adele herself wanted them cut down to make way for a chapel), and at the spot is a large statue in the style of the Miraculous Medal with a wide kneeler and candles flickering about. A caretaker named Karen Tipps who has worked there for two decades tells us that it was on this kneeler that the local prelate, Bishop David Ricken, may have made a decision to further an investigation into the old apparition. "Have mystical things happened here?" he had asked Karen as they knelt together when he first visited, when he first prayed in the crypt.

Her answer was the same as it was to us: yes. "There've been a lot pf mystical happenings in the crypt," Karen informs visitors. There are the healings (symbolized by crutches that in the old days were shed and now stand behind a Pieta in the crypt). There are the sounds: one pilgrim heard a woman weeping. There is that Pieta: one man swore he saw a tear fall from the eye of the Blessed Mother. There are voices. "He felt it on his first visit," she told us, referring back to the bishop. "That experience may have prompted the commission."

This is a bishop who discerned the apparition by going there and praying as in centuries past when -- before the Age of Reason, before the "enlightenment," before psychology -- the response of the Church to the claim of a miracle used to be to organize a procession of the devout and head for the alleged miracle.

Many are those who think only a handful of apparitions have been formally approved by the Church, but the fact is that hundreds have met with approbation in this very fashion through the centuries. The rarity is a product of recent decades.

In fact, visions, apparitions, and miraculous statues are the reason for countless shrines, sanctuaries, churches, basilicas, and cathedrals across Europe, as documented in a book on the 2,000-year history of her phenomena called The Last Secret (which, when it got to the 19th century, mentioned Robinsonville).

And so there is a church, a shrine, here also. There is, too, that mystery, of fire and chastisement. On the very same day that fire struck around the shrine, blazes also erupted two hundred miles to the south, in Chicago. Campfires left by loggers or hunters or rail workers? Fireballs from a disintegrating comet (called "Biela")? No one has ever proven the cause of either historic conflagration. There were the fire tornadoes that were five miles wide and a mile high and moved at ninety to a hundred miles an hour -- erupting as if sheets of fire were not so much spreading as falling. There were the coins in the pants of one corpse, one coin fused, the others untouched, as were the pants. What literally sparked it all? Was it really a logger? Or (in Chicago) a lantern?

It is enthralling to note that a rare solar event called the Carrington Event had occurred the same year (1859) as the apparition.

But that was twelve years before the actual fire. What was going on in Wisconsin farmland? What was transpiring in the new city of Chicago that warranted brimstone?

It's said that Mary indicated that people were ignoring their religion, which is similar to warnings around the same time at LaSalette, France, which preceded the Great French and Irish Potato Famines.

At LaSalette, it was folks neglecting the Sabbath and cursing with the Name of Jesus.

Was this what was happening in Wisconsin and Illinois and Upper Michigan? Was there prostitution? Was it the onset of materialism? Was it the violation of nature? Was it the simple straying from the Faith?

Most importantly:

If a fire wiping out a huge swath of a state like Wisconsin was a chastisement allowed by the Lord for transgressions in 1859, how do we compare in our present day? And how do we protect ourselves?

Adele's procession with statue and Rosary were one answer.

By Michael H. Brown

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[resources: Our Lady of Good Help video and The Last Secret, which summarized Marian miracles over 2,000 years and reported on Robinsonville in 1998]

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[Note: In September of 1871 was this advertisement in Chicago: "Author, reformer, and spiritualist Addie Ballou lectures on 'Moral Chicago' in Farwell Hall.  She does not draw nearly as well as did Horace Greeley the week before. Ms. Ballou contends that Chicago’s moral growth is keeping pace with its demographic expansion, as indicated by the number of churches and similar agencies of good and in spite of the fact that there are by her count some 1,800 saloons in the city.  She will speak the next evening on 'Immoral Chicago.'"]

[Note: One hears in that Wisconsin church one's own "word": "If you love, no one evil can touch your spirit."]

[see also: Wisconsin apparition and the mystery of fire in Marian messages and How apparitions are judged]

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