Wisconsin on the Map to Pray With Mary
By ERIK ECKHOLM - THE NEW YORK TIMES
Added: Wed, 29 Dec 2010 13:53:40 UTC
Apparitions of Mary at the site of Our Lady of Good Help were “worthy of belief,” a Wisconsin bishop said after an investigation.
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.”
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