On Oct. 9, the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion celebrates the 164th anniversary of the Blessed Virgin Mary's second and third apparitions to Adele Brise — the only approved Marian apparitions in the United States. While the observance has long been a yearly event, this is the first year the liturgy is marked as a solemnity.
"This is the first of what we are hoping will be an annual celebration of Our Lady of Champion on the grounds of the shrine," said Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay, Wisconsin, who announced last April the annual Mass would be celebrated with the liturgical rank of solemnity.
Bishop Ricken said the Vatican Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments approved the Oct. 9 solemnity on Dec. 15, 2022.
"It is a long time in the making, as this is a privilege that the Holy See gives only after some years of practice and observation of the fruits of the life and practice of a shrine dedicated to Our Lady," he told OSV News. "This solemnity will be celebrated only in one place at this time, at the Shrine of Our Lady of Champion."
Bishop Ricken announced last April the national shrine would transition from Our Lady of Good Help to Our Lady of Champion. The name change would help people connect the Blessed Mother to the location and community in which she appeared to Adele Brise.
Brise, a Belgian immigrant, was 28 when the apparitions occurred some 18 miles northeast of Green Bay. The first took place while she was walking to a gristmill to grind grain. The last two took place a few days later while she was walking on the way to and from Sunday Mass.
The Oct. 9 anniversary is part of a three-day celebration that begins with the feast of the Holy Rosary on Oct. 7. On that day, an 11 a.m. Mass is followed by a rosary procession around the shrine grounds and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
Oct. 8 is the anniversary of the great Peshtigo Fire, which swept through northeast Wisconsin in 1871, claiming between 1,500 to 2,500 lives. Local farmers rushed to the shrine, where Adele Brise led a rosary procession around the grounds. Shortly after midnight, it began to rain and extinguish the fire.
The shrine was spared while the surrounding area suffered extensive fire damage.
To mark the occasion, pilgrims gather inside the shrine chapel Oct. 8 at 7 p.m. to hear the reading of "The Miracle of the Fire." A candlelight procession around the shrine grounds, reenacting the miracle, follows. The day concludes with an all-night rosary and adoration.
On Oct. 9, Bishop Ricken celebrates the inaugural Mass of the Solemnity of Our Lady of Champion at 11 a.m.
According to Don Warden, chief operations officer, the shrine is preparing for 3,000 people at the solemnity Mass. He said most of Wisconsin's bishops and between 50 and 100 priests will be in attendance. Due to the anticipated large crowd, the Mass is being celebrated outdoors behind the Apparition Chapel.
"One of the most difficult things for us to plan for, especially with this kind of event, is how many people are going to be here," Warden told OSV News. "We're estimating 3,000. We know we could be overshooting by 1,000 or we could be underestimating by 5,000. We have no idea."
The shrine typically sees over 2,000 people during the annual Aug. 15 Mass marking the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. More than 8,000 visited the shrine for this year's Walk to Mary on May 6, said Warden.
Father of Mercy Joseph Aytona, rector of the shrine, believes the name change and solemnity will have very little impact on the shrine itself.
"I think most of the changes are operational," he said. "Liturgically it's going to be the same. … It's a Marian Mass in honor of Our Lady of Champion, but it's not like Our Lady of Fatima or Our Lady of Lourdes, like the proper feast day. It's going to be a solemnity, so there will be a Gloria and the Creed."
The shrine's name change will make it easier for visitors to identify the apparition and the location, said Father Aytona.
"In terms of change, it's more of a branding thing. It's not like the apparitions have changed or the message of the apparition has changed."
According to Warden, the publicity the shrine received following the name change and solemnity designation has resulted in increased traffic on the shrine's website, championshrine.org.
"We're about 40% ahead of last year" on unique visitors to the site, he said. This means new visitors want to know more about the shrine or that they are looking for information to plan a trip.
Warden said around 200,000 pilgrims have visited the shrine this year, exceeding the pre-COVID pandemic high of around 175,000.
Even though Oct. 9 marks the 164th anniversary of the apparitions, Our Lady of Champion wasn't officially recognized as the first and only approved Marian apparition site in the United States until 2010.
People continue to be surprised they occurred in rural Wisconsin, said Warden.
"It's a question that's often asked: 'Why, when this one happened a year after Lourdes, why did it take so long for the church to approve it?" he said. "Obviously, we don't know the answer for sure, but I think it's because that's how heaven wanted it."
"Although the apparition happened in 1859, it was believed by many for decades," added Bishop Ricken. "In practice, it has been treated as authentic by the local people and frequented often, sometimes daily, by many of them."
"This one was not approved right away because it wasn't meant to be for another 150 years," added Warden. "Just seeing the things that are happening now, in terms of how our Blessed Mother is making her apparition and message here in Champion made known, leads us to believe that this is playing a special role at this time in the life of the church, whatever that might be."
He said, "Our Lady is placing opportunities in front of us that have us believe now is the time."
According to historical accounts, the Blessed Mother's message to Brise was twofold:
- "Make a general confession and offer Communion for the conversion of sinners."
- "Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation. Teach them their catechism, how to sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross and how to approach the sacraments."
"My guess is no, because the events aren't as significant as what happened with Tepeyac Hill, with Our Lady appearing to Juan Diego with an image that they could literally see," he said.
"There's no water here for healing, per se, like in Lourdes. There is nothing tangible that we could touch or see," he said, unless God has something else in store.
But the Champion shine offers pilgrims an environment for them to receive that gift of God that passes understanding. The priest said, "It's going to be a continued quiet place for people to experience peace."