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The scheduled appearance of Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay, Wisconsin, at a shrine that commemorates a reputed apparition has raised speculation that the alleged phenomenon may have been elevated a further step in the approval process, or may even meet with formal approbation.

So far, there is no firm information on what the bishop has decided, what he will proclaim, or why he will be at the shrine on that particular day.

The bishop is set to celebrate Mass on December 8 at the chapel in Robinsonville where -- in 1859 -- a third-order religious named Adèle Brisé reported three apparitions of the Blessed Mother, who gave Adèle the mission of teaching the catechism to the young and warned of a coming chastisement. The final apparition was on October 9. Twelve years later -- to the week -- a horrific wildfire destroyed tens of thousands of acres, sparing only the spot of the apparition when it swept to that locale northeast of Green Bay.

The matter has been under study by a special diocesan commission and according to sources that investigation is winding toward a conclusion. We ask prayers for this shrine and event.

While he makes an annual appearance there on August 15, the Mass comes not only in December -- on another great Marian feast day, the Immaculate Conception -- but is closed to the general public (invitation-only for 260, which is all the chapel there can accommodate, though the grounds themselves will be open).

If approved by a formal pastoral later, the Robinsonville apparition, known as Our Lady of Good Help, it would be the first apparition in the United States to reach the level of full Church sanction.

For now, however, there is only speculation on what Bishop Ricken will or will not say. The shrine is under diocesan control and is prominently featured on the chancery's web site. "Promulgation of the story of Sister Adèle and the Robinsonville apparitions has continued, through the years, to receive the public support and permission of the local bishop of the diocese, though no formal declaration has been made by the Catholic Church," says a pamphlet issued by the shrine, which is directed by a diocesan official. "Since the building of the first chapel, the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help has always been accepted as a special place for prayer and worship in the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay." It is also visited each year by the Apostolic Delegate to America.

Thousands visit, some claiming miracles. In addition to the chapel, which has its altar situated directly above the site of apparitions, with a lifelike statue of the Madonna and Child, there is a crypt with another statue of Our Lady of Grace surrounded by candles and flowers. Outside is a cemetery where Sister Adèle is buried.

Notes that official page: "When the Peshtigo fire spread across Green Bay on October 8, 1871, area residents walked around the chapel grounds all night praying the Rosary and carrying a statue of Mary. Everything outside that five-acre area was burned. Every year on October 8 people reenact the procession at the Shrine. There is also a large procession and outdoor Mass on August 15, the feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. The fourth – and current chapel with a shrine to Mary in the crypt – was dedicated on July 12, 1942. Adele Brice is buried on the grounds. The Diocese of Green Bay cares for the chapel, which serves as a testimony to the power of prayer."

While the grounds will be open on December 8, officials emphasize the Mass is strictly by invitation. No others will be admitted. The public is asked to respect this. The impression left by the invitations is that the bishop will announce the results of the findings -- with no indication of what the findings will be, though there is widespread enthusiasm that at least some aspect of the investigation will prove positive. To repeat, however: that is speculation. The bishop could make a full pronouncement declaring authenticity; honor the sanctity of Sister Adèle in some fashion; or simply issue a declaration in some way elevating the shrine as a special holy place.

Few others have come this close to approval. One, known as the Our Lady of America apparitions, received an initial approval in the way of a medal struck by an archbishop in Ohio along with a plaque and a book of messages edited by the same prelate, but there thus far has been no formal pastoral letter -- the defining step for a fully approved apparition. The last major approval was of Kibeho in Rwanda, Africa in 2000. In September, a Fox local television station in Green Bay reported on the "real possibility" that the apparition would win official recognition.

The fact that no apparition has ever been fully approved in the more than 234-year history of the United States has often baffled observers in light of the hundreds approved in Europe, especially France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. Dozens more have met with approval in other nations. Canada also is without a formal pastoral letter for a Marian appearance. Mexico has a number of approved sites, the most famous of which is Guadalupe near Mexico City.

It is explained in an obscure booklet with the imprimatur of Bishop Stanislaus V. Bona of Green Bay that back in 1859, the Blessed Mother showed herself to the devout 28-year-old Belgian farm woman as she was headed for a grist mill with a sack of wheat on her head. Mary stood in white between two trees, then slowly vanished, leaving a white cloud after her.

When Adele told her parents, they wondered if it was a poor soul who needed prayers. On the following Sunday the young woman had to pass there again on her way to Mass at Bay Settlement, which was the nearest place, when she saw the Virgin again.

"As they approached the hallowed spot, Adele could see the beautiful lady, clothed in dazzling white, with a yellow sash around her waist," it is explained. "Her dress fell to her feet in graceful folds. She had a crown of stars around her head, and her long golden wavy hair fell loosely over her shoulders. Such a heavenly light shone around her that Adele could hardly look at her sweet face. Overcome by this heavenly light and the beauty of her amiable visitor, Adele fell on her knees."

When she asked what the apparition wanted, Mary responded:

"I am the Queen of Heaven who prays for the conversion of sinners, and I wish you to do the same. You received Holy Communion this morning and that is well. But you must do more. Make a general confession and offer Communion for the conversion of sinners. If they do not convert and do penance, my Son will be obliged to punish them."

The Blessed Mother desired evangelization. She wanted Adele to show others the Catechism. A little log oratory was built on the spot. Today, they struggle (and could use help) in making it a more significant shrine. A second chapel had been built there along with a convent nearby and a school.

Adele was a tertiary Franciscan who wore a habit and lived as a nun (there was no formal order there to join).

The catastrophe destroyed massive swaths of  northeastern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan and indeed was the worst recorded forest fire in American history. By the time it was over, 1.2 million acres -- 1,850 square miles (the size of Rhode Island) -- had been consumed, and one to two thousand were dead. It was described in some parts as "a wall of flame, a mile high, five miles wide, traveling 90 to 100 miles an hour, hotter than a crematorium, turning sand into glass."

The fire was so intense it sent cinders several miles over the waters of Green Bay and burned parts of the Door Peninsula. A witness named Edward J. Hall of nearby Oconto recalled to a historical site: "Balls of fire were observed to fall like meteors in different parts of the town [Peshtigo], igniting whatever they came in contact with. By this time the whole population was thoroughly aroused and alarmed, panic-stricken. A brilliant and fearful glare grew suddenly into sight. Men and women snatched their children and ran for the river.

"Inhaling the burning air, hundreds dropped within sight of the river while many fell within a few feet of the river. Those who reached the river threw water and wet cloths on their heads, and even kept under water as much as they could, and yet were burned to death."

Some of those who sought refuge in ponds or wells boiled to death.

Remarkably -- miraculously -- Adele, who was in the heart of it, escaped. Seeking refuge in the chapel, she and other farmers, nuns, and companions made the dash there as fire raged in every direction.

"Awe-stricken, they thronged the chapel ground," says the history. "Already, the chapel was filled with terror-stricken people, beseeching the Mother of God to spare them, many wailing aloud in their fright.

"Filled with confidence, they entered the chapel, reverently raised the statue of Mary, and kneeling, bore it in procession around their beloved sanctuary.

"When wind and fire exposed them to suffocation, they turned in another direction, and continued to hope and pray, saying the Rosary.

After hours of horror and suspense, Heaven sent relief by way of a downpour. The fire was extinguished. When they looked out the next morning, everything was destroyed. There was literally desolation for miles.

"But the convent, school, chapel, and the five acres of land consecrated to the Virgin Mary shone like an emerald isle in a sea of ashes," notes a pamphlet. "The raging fire licked the outside palings and left charred scars as mementos. Tongues of fire had reached the chapel fence, and threatened destruction to all within its confines -- but the fire had not entered the chapel ground."

The shrine is located on County Highway K, 17 miles northeast of Green Bay and six miles east of the intersection of State Highway 57 near the town of Champion.

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