Adele Brise was born in Belgium on January 30, 1831. As a child, she was known for her religious fervor and piety. Her family’s immigration to the United States in 1855 caused Adele consternation in the months prior to their departure. She recalled her childhood promise to the Virgin Mary at the time of her First Communion, a promise that entailed joining a religious community and working in the foreign missions. She sought the advice of her confessor in Belgium, who advised her to go to the United States; she could fulfill her promise there. Little did Adele know that the Virgin Mary would soon visit her and invite her to renew that promise, working in a new country and spreading the gospel.
After arriving in the United States in 1855, her parents, Lambert and Marie, acquired property in northeastern Wisconsin, where many Belgian immigrants had settled. The area quickly gained the name “Aux Premieres Belges,” First Belgian Settlement. In her mid-twenties, with a meager education, Adele assisted her family in duties around the house and their farmland. Her work included carrying grain to the local grist mill. On a day like any other, Adele carried out her work. As she walked along the wooded trail to the grist mill with her sack of grain, a woman suddenly appeared between two trees, a maple and a hemlock. After a few moments, the mysterious woman vanished, without saying anything. Later that day, Adele shared what happened with her family, who did not discount the strange tale and instead suggested the visitor was a poor soul from Purgatory.
On the morning of Sunday, October 9, 1859, Adele, the pious and devout woman that she was, set out for Mass with her sister and a neighbor woman. The trek took them along the same wooded trail, and in the same place between the two trees, the woman appeared again. Only Adele saw her, though her friends knew something was happening. After Mass, Adele spoke to the priest about these events. He instructed her to ask the woman who she was and what she wanted. On her journey home, Adele did just that.
The woman appeared, for the third and final time. She was dressed all in white with a yellow sash around her waist and a crown of stars around her wavy golden hair. This time, she spoke, telling Adele, “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 your Holy Communion for the conversion of sinners. If they do not convert and do penance, my Son will be obliged to punish them.”
Mary, remembering Adele’s promise made on the occasion of her First Communion, asked Adele, “What are you doing here in idleness while your companions are working in the vineyard of my Son?” Adele began to weep and responded, “What more can I do, dear Lady?” Her answer was: “Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation.”
“But how shall I teach them who know so little myself?” Adele asked. The Queen of Heaven responded, “Teach them their catechism, how to sign themselves with the sign of the Cross, and how to approach the sacraments; that is what I wish you to do. Go and fear nothing, I will help you.”
It seems that the life of any soul who is graced with an apparition of Mary becomes defined by that miraculous event; it changes them in many ways. St. Juan Diego began to share the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe and gained converts by the millions. St. Bernadette withdrew from the world to pray for sinners. Sr. Lucia from Fatima reflected for years on her experiences, helping to promote devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. For Adele Brise, Mary’s three apparitions gave direction to her life. She received a mission and mandate from Heaven to pray and teach the children. And she spent the rest of her life fulfilling this request from Mary.
In the early years following the apparition, Adele would travel in a fifty-mile radius, knocking on the doors of strangers, doing household chores for them and in exchange teaching the children their catechism. Several years later she founded a lay tertiary (third order) group of women. They wore habits and called one another Sister. Eventually, a school was built, and the sisters taught the children on the very grounds where Mary gave the mandate to gather the children. Mary’s apparitions to Adele changed her life, and by extension, they change us and call us to mission and action.
Mary’s parting words to Adele were: “Go and fear nothing, I will help you.” From the mouth of the Queen of Heaven, Adele received the pledge of heavenly assistance, which she relied upon throughout her life. Adele needed help as she fulfilled the mission of teaching the children, walking the peninsula, and entering the homes of families and instructing the children. She needed Mary’s help when only a few cents remained in the money bag or when they were short on food. And most especially, the sisters, schoolchildren, and many in the immediate vicinity relied on Mary’s help on the night of the Peshtigo Fire, historically the largest and most devastating fire in U.S. history. (The Peshtigo Fire has been forgotten because it occurred on October 8, 1871—the same night as the Great Chicago Fire.)
The fire that ravaged the area of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, began to burn across the body of water that separated the two points, in the Door Peninsula. Many people lost their lives. Near my parish in Brussels, Wisconsin, is a historical site called Tornado Park, where many sought refuge in the field. Tragically, all but a few perished. As the fire consumed everything in sight, the Chapel of Our Lady of Good Help stood in its way. Many people prayed there that night, carrying a statue of Mary around the property, changing directions whenever the smoke became too much for them. God heard their prayers, sparing Mary’s sanctuary and many lives.
Over the years since Mary appeared, it hasn’t been only Adele who relied on Mary’s intercession but many others who make their pilgrimage and ask her to intercede for their special intention. Hundreds of candles stand aglow, testifying to the prayers of visitors in need of Mary’s help.
During my seminary years, I spent an entire summer in Quetzeltenango, Guatemala, at a Benedictine monastery, with the intention of learning Spanish. From time to time, I would pray the Liturgy of the Hours with the monks, but I also joined their high school seminary students for their Marian devotion. They would pray the Rosary on three days of the school week, and on the other two they would simply gather in the chapel and sing songs honoring the Virgin Mary. This was really my first experience of, as I call it, serenading the Virgin. My experience with other Marian movements, like Schoenstatt, has been similar, with a dedicated time to sing Marian hymns.
While my time in Guatemala was my first real experience of it, I knew from reading about the life of Sr. Adele Brise that this was a form of devotion she employed, for herself, the sisters, and the schoolchildren. Sr. Marie du Sacre Coeur shared her memory of Adele: “I remember well, when I was about eight years old, we would pray and sing hymns around the trees where the Blessed Virgin had appeared to Sr. Adele.” Another, Sr. Pauline, recounted: “I knelt in the dear little Chapel and sang with Adele her favorite hymn in French, Chantons le nom admirable de la Reine des Cieux.”
In the spiritual tradition, pilgrimage to holy sites reminds us that we are a pilgrim in the world, making our own pilgrimage from earth to Heaven. For centuries Catholics have made pilgrimages to holy sites, whether to tombs of saints to venerate their relics or to honor the Mother of God at one of her many sanctuaries. Some of the most popular places of Marian pilgrimage are related to Marian apparitions. For years Americans have traveled to Lourdes or Fatima to visit such a place. While the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help has existed since 1859, it was not well known. With the 2010 approval of the apparition, the shrine has seen a surge in pilgrims. For those Americans who cannot afford a transatlantic pilgrimage, it is possible to visit a place of the same stature, where pilgrims have experienced graces through Mary’s intercession.
When a person makes a pilgrimage to Champion, Wisconsin, they will sit in the school of Our Lady, and not only will Mary teach them, but Sr. Adele will be their teacher too. She will teach them by the testimony of her life and through the story of her apparition. She will teach them how to love Mary through song and reliance on her intercession and will introduce us to a title of Mary that has its own history, aside from the apparition—Our Lady of Good Help. Mary’s apparition to Adele changed her life and helped her fall in love with the Lord and our Blessed Lady. Be a pilgrim and become a student in Our Lady’s school with Adele as your teacher.
How to Love Mary Like Sr. Adele:
- The next time you are in need of heavenly assistance, ask Our Lady to intercede for you. Rely on her prayers, just as Adele did throughout her life.
- Do you have a statue of Mary in your home? Gather the family sometime soon and pray the Rosary (like so many did on the night of the Peshtigo Fire), then afterward sing a Marian hymn, in imitation of Sr. Adele, who would sing songs to the Madonna. Serenade the Madonna with hymns like “Immaculate Mary,” “Hail, Holy Queen,” “Sing of Mary,” “Hail Mary, Gentle Woman,” or any other Marian song you might know.
- Pilgrims flock to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help. They go to Confession, attend Mass, pray the Rosary, and seek Mary’s intercession. Be one of those pilgrims. Make a road trip sometime in the next year and visit the place where Adele received a visit from the Queen of Heaven.
- Pray the Litany to Our Lady of Good Help
- Do you have a favorite Marian hymn like Adele? If so, resolve to sing it every night. If not, find one!
Editor’s note: The above excerpt is taken from How They Love Mary: 28 Life-Changing Stories of Devotion to Our Lady, available now from Sophia Institute Press.
Image: NEW FRANKEN,WI MARCH 2 :Shrine of Our Lady Of Good Help. First and only Catholic church approved Marian Apparition site in the United States. March 2, 2013 New Franken, WI. Shutterstock/devande