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Promoting Devotion to Wisconsin’s Approved Marian Apparition among Catechists

by Rev. Mr. Edward Lee Looney

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  • Description:
    This article explores the relevance of the only approved Marian apparition site in the United States, Our Lady of Good Help, located in Champion, Wisconsin to the field of catechesis.
  • Larger Work:
    Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  • Publisher & Date:
    Ignatius Press, May 12, 2015

Parish religious education programs will soon be gearing up for another year of instructing children in their religion. Parents have registered their children; curriculums and lesson plans are being drafted, and catechists are being recruited. As these programs commence, a commendable practice for the program would be to entrust the year’s faith formation to the intercession of the Queen of Heaven, Our Lady of Good Help. For those who labor in the Church’s vineyard of religious education and catechesis, the story of Sister Adele Brise and the Marian apparitions which she received can be a source of inspiration as they undertake their work. In fact, I would suggest that catechists must cultivate an awareness of, and devotion to, the only approved Marian apparition site in the United States, located in Champion, Wisconsin, because of its relevance in the field of catechesis.

The Queen of Heaven Appears

Adele Brise was born in Belgium and immigrated to the United States with her family in 1855. In her younger years, she desired to become a religious sister; in fact, her immigration to the United States caused her a small amount of consternation. She sought the advice of her parish priest, who encouraged her to go with her family to America, and if it was God’s will for her to become a religious sister, it would be realized there. Her family settled in a dominantly Belgian settlement along the Door Peninsula in Wisconsin where Adele began to undertake work for the family.

On an ordinary autumn day in October 1859, the 28-year-old Adele Brise was carrying a sack of grain to the local grist mill. Along the Indian trail she was walking, a mysterious woman appeared to her, between two trees—a Maple and a Hemlock. The woman did not say anything to Adele, and the vision quickly vanished. She shared the occurrence with her family, who believed it to be a poor soul in need of prayers.

On the following Sunday, October 9, 1859, Adele was walking along the same trail to church. She saw the same woman again, between the same two trees. As before, she said nothing, and the vision quickly vanished. After Mass, she sought the advice of the parish priest, who instructed her to ask the woman, “In God’s name, who are you, and what do you want of me?” That is precisely what Adele did on her way home as she encountered, for the third time, the same beautiful woman, dressed all in white, with a yellow sash around her waist, golden wavy hair, and a crown of stars around her head.

The woman 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.”1

At the end of the dialogue, Adele was instructed to “Gather the children in this wild country, and teach them what they need to know for salvation … their catechism, how to sign themselves with the sign of the cross, and how to approach the sacraments.”2

With her instructions from the Queen of Heaven, Adele set out to do the work she was asked. First, by walking around the peninsula, knocking on the doors of strangers and volunteering to do their household work in exchange for teaching their children. Second, Adele founded a tertiary (third order) group of sisters and built a Catholic school to hand on the Catholic faith. She prepared the students for the reception of the sacraments and presented them to the priest for admission to Holy Communion. On her deathbed in 1896, Adele exhorted her friend Josie, to “be kind to the sick and the old, and continue to instruct the children in their religion as I have done.”3 Adele had faithfully carried out the mission of prayer and catechesis that was entrusted to her by the Queen of Heaven to the very end, and encouraged others to continue her work.

Implications for Catechists

The story of Sister Adele Brise centers on her response to the Blessed Virgin Mary, namely, to teach the children their religion. Five fundamental insights can be gleaned from the brief dialogue Adele Brise had with the Queen of Heaven, and can be beneficial for religious education programs and their catechists. The five insights pertain to disposition, qualification, curriculum, evangelization, and assistance. If catechists look to the example of Sister Adele, they can be inspired in the midst of doubts, undergo a conversion of heart, and begin to evangelize effectively.

Disposition of the Catechist

If one analyzes the dialogue between Adele and Our Lady, one can clearly see there are two dimensions to the message, two missions—one contemplative; the other active. The core of Our Lady’s message centered on prayer, conversion, and catechesis. It reveals to us the disposition catechists should have as they carry out the work of their apostolate.

Our Lady told Adele, “I am the Queen of Heaven, who prays for the conversion of sinners, and I wish you to do the same.” She went on to tell Adele to make a general confession and offer her Communion for the conversion of sinners.4 Our Lady emphasized a spiritual (contemplative) approach before the active mission of catechesis. Adele was to join the Blessed Virgin in praying for the conversion of sinners, and then avail herself of the sacraments, namely, the sacraments of penance and Eucharist. Before Adele could labor for the conversion of sinners through catechesis, she first had to pray for those to whom she would minister, and she had to be converted herself by confessing her sins and receiving absolution.

From Sister Adele, we learn that catechists must be people who practice their faith, pray, and frequently approach the sacraments of the Church. Before stepping foot inside of the religious education classroom, it is imperative for the catechist to have prayed for their students in some capacity. Perhaps, like Adele, they could offer their Holy Communion for a specific intention. Every time we attend Holy Mass, we can offer our intentions through our worthy reception of Holy Communion. This pious practice is not often taught or encouraged, but as we see in the apparition of Our Lady to Adele, it is a practice recommended by the Mother of God. Second, a catechist must be a person immersed in the sacramental tradition of the Church. If one is going to teach about the sacraments of penance and Eucharist, one must be the initial recipient of the graces of these sacraments. They must become witnesses of what they practice.

Qualifications of the Catechist

Our Lady asked Adele, “What are you doing here in idleness, while your companions are working in the vineyard of my Son?” Adele responded, “What more can I do, dear Lady?” To which she was given the instruction to teach the children what they needed to know for salvation. In response, Adele confesses her unworthiness, “How shall I teach them who know so little myself?”5

Adele Brise recognized her limitations. Her education was meager, and she was physically handicapped after losing one of her eyes. Despite these limitations, Adele was selected by the Blessed Virgin to carry out the work of her Son, and to labor for the conversion of sinners. Like Adele, some catechists may feel they are not qualified to teach religious education. The humility of these individuals is laudable, but they, also, in all humility, must acknowledge they, too, can be instruments that God wishes to work through. Adele’s qualifications for this work were her profound faith and piety. Like Adele, each catechist must trust they are responding to an invitation from God. Unlike Adele, they probably have not received a heavenly vision revealing their vocation, but God has prompted in them the desire to become a catechist. As such, they should become ready cooperators in God’s plan.

Curriculum of Catechesis

“Teach them what they should know for salvation … (t)heir catechism, how to sign themselves with the sign of the Cross, and how to approach the sacraments.”6These were the marching orders given to Adele, and they are an excellent recommendation for where we should begin in catechizing young people. It is quite a lofty charge if one thinks about it. Teaching people what they need to know for salvation means teaching them how to live a moral life by obeying the commandments. It ultimately means teaching them what is contained within the catechism, the second charge of Our Lady.

Furthermore, Our Lady emphasized teaching the Sign of the Cross. After all, the Sign of the Cross is the mark of our faith and how we begin every Mass and personal prayer. It reminds us of the sacrifice of Christ and what he won for us. It is a sign of our salvation and redemption. This instruction could be seen as an exhortation to teach young people how to pray and be properly disposed for prayer. Lastly, Our Lady specifically says, teach the children how to approach the sacraments. This covers a wide array of topics, including worthy reception of Holy Communion, how to prayerfully prepare for Mass, how to examine one’s conscience, and what is the proper attire for church.

When serving in the classroom, these four principles are useful guideposts as to whether, or not, we are properly catechizing. It allows us to examine our lesson plans and question whether what we are teaching is about the salvation of souls, or not. Our Lady’s fourfold blueprint for catechesis can be utilized anytime by catechists.

Evangelizing All People

The Belgian settlement where Adele Brise lived was undergoing a spiritual crisis at the time leading up to the apparition. Fr. John Perrodin lamented in a letter to a pastor in Europe that many of the immigrants were “neglecting their duties of religion, and live as unbelievers. The children are not instructed, and grow up without knowing God.”7 He went on to inquire of the pastor if there were any priests in Belgium who could accompany their flocks in order to ensure the availability of the sacraments.

It is no accident that Our Lady appears in this Belgian settlement in order to renew the faith of the people. She tells Adele to gather the children and teach them their catechism. The uninstructed children become instructed; those who do not know God become aware of God’s goodness. As Adele traveled from home to home in the initial years, she surely shared the faith, not only with the children, but through the children, to their family. During the school years, Adele and the tertiary sisters would write letters to the families, not only to request payment of tuition, but also to give a small sound bite of the Gospel.

Through Our Lady’s apparition, we can realize a new method of evangelization—through the children to the adults. One of the problems today in terms of religious education is that families no longer are the conduit of teaching the faith; instead parents believe the Church to be the transmitters of faith for their children. Of course, this is errant, given that the home is the domestic Church, and parents are to be the first teachers of the faith for their children. Many of the students in religious education programs do not regularly attend Mass, in part because their parents do not believe Sunday worship to be a priority.

Using the Champion formula for evangelization—children evangelizing their parents—we learn the task of catechists is to instill within the young people they instruct a great hunger for God. If young people become energized about their faith and desire to be in constant relationship with Jesus Christ, this will reach their family and parents. If catechesis is done effectively, children will begin to ask their parents why they do not honor the Sabbath. They will challenge their parents’ religious complacency and, quite possibly, spur them to conversion. Adolescents who engage the spiritual life will surely be witnesses to their families of the joy that comes in knowing and serving Jesus Christ.

Help along the Way

Our Lady’s departing words to Adele were “Go and fear nothing, I will help you.”8 Catechists may get discouraged from time to time. When they believe they are not qualified, or do not know what to teach, they must rest assured that they will have help along the way. The Blessed Virgin Mary promised her help to Adele as she went out to work for the salvation of souls. Mary promises her help through her continued intercession and mediation of the graces we need. We can be confident that if we try to live the message given by Our Lady to Adele Brise, Mary will extend that help to each one of us. The saints and angels are our companions and helpers in this effort.

However, help must not be limited only to the celestial realm. Catechists cannot do this mission by themselves; they need the help and support of other people. The parish must be a source of help through its many resources, including the director of religious education, the pastor, multimedia resources, and diocesan support. Catechists should not feel that they are alone, but that they have a strong support system they can turn to. Sister Adele had her support in the many priests with whom she worked, and her tertiary companions. This same support should be offered to those who work to carry out Mary’s mission in the world today.

Promoting the Devotion

In 1859, the Blessed Virgin appeared in space and time to a Belgian immigrant named Adele Brise, in order to renew the faith of the Belgian community through prayer and catechesis. Given this apparition’s strong connection to catechizing young people, it seems only appropriate that catechists should foster devotion to the Queen of Heaven, and the Wisconsin apparition known popularly by the name of the Shrine—Our Lady of Good Help. As pastors who directly oversee programs of religious education, you can help raise awareness of, and promote devotion to, this apparition in three ways:

  1. Form your catechists in the way requested by Our Lady. Consider hosting a formation day for catechists where they will learn how to become properly disposed to being a catechist. Teach them how to pray, encourage them to frequent the sacraments, and often pray for those to whom they will minister. Encourage them to live the mission entrusted to Adele Brise—a mission of prayer and catechesis.
  2. Pray regularly to the Queen of Heaven, Our Lady of Good Help. Entrust the year to the intercession of Our Lady by collectively praying A Novena to the Queen of Heaven, Our Lady of Good Help.9 The novena has daily intentions intimately connected to the story of the Shrine and allows for personal intentions to be offered as well. There are other Our Lady of Good Help devotional items available through the Shrine, such as medals and holy cards.
  3. Consider sponsoring a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help for your catechists. Given that the Shrine is in Wisconsin, it is not cost prohibitive for a large group (as compared to a pilgrimage to Europe).

It is our responsibility as pastors and religious leaders to ensure that the faith is passed on to the next generation. This begins with proper analysis of our religious education programs. Our Lady appeared in 1859 with a particular mission. She yearned for interior conversions before apostolic work. Together as clergy and laity, let us live Our Lady’s message and seek her intercession as we carry out the work of the New Evangelization.

  1. Sister M. Dominica, The Chapel: Our Lady of Good Help (DePere, Wisconsin: Journal Publishing Co., 1955), 8.
  2. Dominica, 9.
  3. Dominica, 39.
  4. Dominica, 8.
  5. Dominica, 9.
  6. Dominica, 9.
  7. Dominica, 3.
  8. Dominica, 9.
  9. Available through Amor Deus Publishing, amordeus.com or ask your local Catholic bookstore to order copies. ?

About Rev. Mr. Edward Lee Looney

Edward Looney is a recently ordained deacon for the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and studies at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago, Illinois. A member of the Mariological Society of America, he has published and spoken extensively on the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, authoring five works on the Shrine. His latest is A Novena to the Queen of Heaven, Our Lady of Good Help.

© Homiletic and Pastoral Review

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