Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Day 149 - Visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help

I have never been to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help. This Northern Wisconsin place of pilgrimage for people of Catholic faith is known for the alleged miracles that have occurred following visits to the location. The relevance and claimed power of the location began with woman, Adele Brise, receiving three independent visions of the Virgin Mary along a wooded trail in 1859. In response, Adele committed her life to helping others learn and find faith, and her visions helped establish the location along the wooded trail as a location of importance in Catholicism. In fact, over the years since Adele’s visions many people claim visits to the location have helped cure physical and emotional illness through prayer. Eventually, this resulted in the establishment of the modern structure that resides on the location, now known as the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help.

Growing up, I heard stories about the alleged miracles of the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help and the amazing, often unexplainable stories about the location. From individual claims of miraculous healing to the incredible story of the largest wildfires in American history, the Peshtigo Fire, burning around the borders of the shrine property, the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help has always remained a place of curiosity for me. While I remained skeptical about the stories and the alleged power of the location, the quantity of such claims were enough to make me want to visit the location. However, I never set aside time to make the trip up to this point in my life. As a result, I decided I would finally visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help during my “I have never...” year. A little research on the location revealed today was the anniversary of Adele Brise’s first vision of the Virgin Mary. As a result, I set aside time to journey up to the shrine today to experience the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help for the first time.

Walking up...
With my curiosity and my underlying desire to prove or disprove the claims of miracles guiding me, I took some time off of work and drove to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help this morning. Although the drive covered nearly half of the state of Wisconsin, I was surprised to find it went rather quickly. Amid the beautiful, warm weather and the burgeoning autumn colors I occupied my time with my iPod and the ever changing mix of scenery until I arrived at the shrine, which rest among the fields northeast of the city of Green Bay. With little knowledge of what the shrine looked like before making the trip, I was immediately taken by the simple, yet pleasing design of the structures that composed the shrine complex. A small church and museum wrapped around a green space occupied by several moderately sized maple trees drenched in yellow autumn leaves. Across the property small groups of people and children gathered and played beneath the warm sun, dodging falling leaves as they moved from one building to another as the wandered the shrine grounds. The peace and quiet that came in those first few minutes of my experience were telling. Although I remained skeptical about the claims surrounding the location, it was clear the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help was a special place.

The church
After briefly walking the front of the shrine grounds, I made my way into the church built into the east side of the structure. Upon entering I saw a group of people scattered among the rows of wooden pews facing the front of the building. Before the crowd a priest stood, explaining the history of Adele’s experiences, the shrine, and the modern complex that rests on the sight of the holy visions. Realizing I walked in on a tour of the shrine, I quietly found a place to sit among the pews and listened on as the priest spoke. He moved about the front of the church as he continued, pointing out the statues and relics of particular meaning to the church and to Adele’s visions. The history of the building was impressive enough, but the details of the claimed miracles surrounding the shrine were uniquely amazing.

After the tour group left the church, I took some time to stay in the building alone. I slowly walked the aisles of the structure, looking over the pictures, monuments, and beautiful craftsmanship lining the church walls. Eventually, I found myself sitting back in the pews among the silence of the arching structure. My eyes fixed on the glowing stained glass windows at the rear of the building, I found myself wondering about the myths and legends that made the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help a modern center of miracles. As I sat I took note of the fact that the location didn’t make it feel unlike any other place I had been before. At first, the feeling made me feel ready to dismiss the claims about the shrine, but I realized that the quantity of stories about its healing power meant there had to be some credence to the claims. I just didn’t understand how the pieces fit.

For some time I fought between these seemingly conflicting thoughts until a single thought forced its way to the front of my mind. Surrounded by images of the Church, I began to realize the power of the shrine really rested in the faith of those that visited it, and that belief in its healing powers likely helped some people through some of the most challenging parts of their lives. That alone made it different than any other place I had visited before, and in that moment the words “the true power of faith resides within” made more sense to me than at any other point in my life. No matter what anyone believes, the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help has real meaning to many people, and that meaning has the ability to make those people feel stronger, more complete, and closer to their faith. From that, it was clear only good came from the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, which made me happy I made the trip.

The shrine
Removing myself from my train of thought, I rose from the pews and made my way back out of the building. Following some small signs, I rounded the exterior of the church and began walking toward the shrine, which was located directly below the church. Upon entering the building I descended into a dark space lit solely by the flames of dozens of candles lining the shrine walls. At the center of the room, the physical shrine to Our Lady of Good Help sat wreathed by flowers and lit from a single light in the base of the structure. In the light a statue of the Virgin Mary stood with her arms open, gently welcoming the few people sitting in the few short pews resting before the monument. I took a brief look around the room as I entered, taking note of the various forms of religious artwork and the rack of crutches and braces left by those healed after their visit to the shrine. The sight was strange, but it reinforced my earlier thoughts and left me feeling as though I should spend some more time at the location.

Adele's grave
Ultimately, I decided to take a seat in one of the pews in the room and observe those praying and sitting before the shrine. Although I only intended to stay a few moments, I found myself staying in the pew as people came and went from the building. Every person that entered the room clearly left affected by their experience, sometimes shedding tears following their prayers and sometimes leaving with heads held high and renewed with hope. Eventually, a quick check of the clock revealed I had spent over an hour before the shrine, catching me off guard and making me realize I needed to move on if I was to make it home at a reasonable hour.

I left the shrine heavy with emotion and the various experiences I witnessed during the time I sat in the holy space. As I emerged back into the daylight, I decided I would take a little more time to take in the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help grounds, which led me to the back of the church building. There I encountered the grave of Adele Brise, the woman responsible for providing a place for people to find solace during times of sorrow or pain. Humbled by the thought of mark on the lives of so many people, I spent a few minutes in front of her gravestone before proceeding to the back property of the complex. After moving past Adele’s grave, I came upon a vast open green space dotted with trees and religious monuments to various saints, to Mary, and to Jesus Christ. I walked among them for several minutes as I took in the warm afternoon sun and the colors of autumn. For me, there was no better way to cap off my experience at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help. So, I took in my last views of the complex and made my way back to my car.

The grounds
The drive home gave me plenty of time to think about today’s experience and what it meant to me. While I didn’t encounter any strange feeling or force emanating from the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, I did discover some important thoughts on the meaning of belief in our lives. I have always known faith to be a powerful and moving part of humanity, but until today I hadn’t come across a place where it helps people overcome the greatest difficulties in their lives. While I know I will never be able to prove or disprove whether the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help truly has some unexplained ability to heal people, I know my first experience at the location gave me some new perspective. Maybe that’s enough to believe the shrine can do something to people, or maybe it’s a sign this “I have never...” journey really is opening my eyes.

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