Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Peshtigo Fire - A Miracle From the Ashes

The statue of Mary inside the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help

As promised I'm ending my posts on this historic tragedy on a miraculous note.  I'm not speaking figuratively.  I'm not saying "It's a miracle my husband's ancestors survived".  I'm grateful that they survived, and it could be viewed as miraculous, but I'm talking church acknowledged miracle! This miracle didn't happen in the town of Peshtigo.  It was across the bay in a town called Robinsonville that was also under attack by the series of fires collectively known as the "Great Peshtigo Fire"....and it's the sort of story that makes you believe in miracles if you didn't already.  A little history...

Adele Brise (also spelled Brice) was a young Belgian immigrant who came to America with her family and settled in Wisconsin.  She had originally wanted to stay behind in her native Belgium and join a convent with some other girls, but after talking with her priest, he advised her to do what any good priest follow her parents wishes and go to America with them.  He told her that if she was meant for a religious order that she would no doubt find one in the United States.  So instead of a convent Adele found herself in a heavily wooded area of Wisconsin.

Mary as Adele described
Adele was very religious.  She would walk to church every week...ELEVEN MILES to church every week!  In October of 1859 Adele experienced not one, but 3 Marian Apparitions.  The first was as Adele was walking to a grist mill 4 miles from Robinsonville with a sack of wheat on her head.  She saw a lady in white standing in her path on the trail she was walking.  She stopped, frightened and remained still until the lady disappeared before her eyes a few minutes later.

The second time was that Sunday as she walked to church.  Her sister walked with her and in the exact same place, Adele saw the lady before her in the distance.  She stopped, again afraid.  Her sister could not see the woman.  Eventually she disappeared and they continued to church.  After Mass Adele spoke with her priest about what she saw.  The priest told her that the spirit would not hurt her, but to ask in God's name what she wanted.

On the way home from mass that day, Sunday, October 9th, 1859, Adele again saw the apparition before her.  The people with her stopped as she knelt and asked the apparition , "In God's name, who are you, and what do you want of me?"  The response that Adele got was that the apparition was the "Queen of Heaven" and she commanded that Adele teach the children their catechism, how to make the sign of the Cross, and how to receive the Sacraments.

On that spot Adele's father (Lambert Brice) built a ten by twelve foot structure to mark the spot of the visions.  Not everyone believed in what Adele saw, but that did not deter her.  Over the years, as people began to make pilgrimages to the spot and as Adele began to fulfill the promise she made to teach the children, the structure grew and the land that held the school and chapel was consecrated.  The Chapel became known as "Our Lady of Good Help."

Twelve years later, almost to the day Adele spoke to the apparition of Mary, the fires erupted.  This is the account of what happened that night as printed in the book "The Chapel:  Our Lady of Good Help" (Sister M. Dominica, O.S.F, 1955):

Stained glass windows in the Shrine
"We do not propose to pass judgment on the reasons for this catastrophe, but we know that twelve years later almost to the day, October 8, 1871, the great calamity fell.  The Belgian colony which embraced a large part of the peninsula,  was visited by the same whirlwind of fire and wind that overwhelmed Peshtigo.  Here, as across the Bay, the forest fires had crept on for weeks and months, and on the same Sunday night came whirling over the Lake and Bay counties.  The Wisconsin peninsula, too, was the scene of an awesome drama.  A terrible, ten-fold wind sprang up from the southeast and fanned the smoldering fires into a mighty wave, submerging the whole peninsula into a raging sea of fire and smoke.

After weeks of fear and suspense, the hour struck and the great forest rocked and tossed simultaneously.  In one awful instant, before expectation could give way to horror, the black-curtained sky burst forth into great clouds of fire.  The day had been prophetically [sic] still; smoke and gases filled the air.  An ominous dread gripped the minds and hearts of every living creature, even the wild beasts of the forests mingled with men as both fled in terror before a great consuming roaring fire circling all within its fiery grasp.  At first the roaring blaze thundered like great cataracts among the tree-tops, but as it gained momentum, it sounded like the distant roar of the sea giving place to thunderous fury mingled with a tornado of fire.

A survivor wrote that if one could imagine the worst snow storm he ever witnessed, and each flake a coal or spark of fire driven before a terrifying wind, he would have an idea of the atmosphere at the time the fire struck.  Hundreds of families were driven from their homes, many being overtaken by the rain of fire.

Adele Brise's photo at the Shrine
'This is judgment; this is the end of the world,' was uttered by a frenzied mob dashing wildly for means of escape made impassable by fallen timber and burning bridges.  Land and sky in flames, wild confusion of the elements, while men looking on, stupefied [sic] with horror, were withering with fear.  It was indeed a terrifying spectacle.

The wide spreading track of ruin covered the greater part of the peninsula from Green Bay to Lake Michigan, and from the neighborhood of Green Bay on the south to 'Death's Door' on the north.  In the town of Green Bay, the fire entered at the southeast corner and swept on the wings of the wind to the north east.  It extended into parts of Outagamie, Kewaunee, Door, and Brown counties.  The towns of Humboldt, Green Bay, New Franken, Casco, Brussels, Rosiere, Lincoln, Robinsonville and many others were scathed with a whirlwind of flame which devoured the woods, leaped across clearings, and lopped everything inflammable in its path.  The area burned was not less than fifty miles in length and twenty average miles wide.  The burning belt widened as it advance.  Nothing could be done to stop its forward march, and the Chapel of Our Lady of Good Help lay in its path.

The crucial hour had come, the hurricane of fire broke in all its fury.  Adele and her companions were faced with a momentous decision.  They were determined not to abandon Mary's shrine, and their faith in Mary's protection never faltered.  The children, the Sisters, and the farmers with their families, drove their livestock before them and raced in the direction of Mary's sanctuary.  They were now encircled by a raging inferno with no means of escape.  Looking back, they saw their buildings literally swallowed by the fiery monster.  By this time the surrounding territory was one vast sea of fire.  Awe-stricken, they thronged the Chapel grounds.  Already the Chapel was filled with terror-stricken people beseeching the Mother of God to spare them, many wailing aloud in their fright.  Filled with confidence, they entered the Chapel, reverently raised the statue of Mary, and kneeling bore it in procession around their beloved sanctuary.  When wind and fire exposed them to suffocation, they turned in another direction, and continued to hope and pray, saying the rosary.

Statues of children kneeling on the grounds of the Shrine
'Thus passed for them the long hours of that terrible night.  I know not if, supported only by nature, they would have been able to live through that awful ordeal, ' so wrote Father Pernin, hero of the 'Peshtigo Fire.'

After hours of horror and suspense, the heavens sent relief in the form of a downpour.  The fervent prayers to the Mother of God were heard.  The fire was extinguished, but dawn revealed the ravages wrought by the conflagration.  Everything about them was destroyed;  miles of desolation everywhere.  But the Convent, school, Chapel, and the five acres of land consecrated to the Virgin Mary shone like an emerald isle in a sea of ashes.  The raging fire licked the outside palings and left charred scars as mementos.  Tongues of fire had reached the Chapel fence, and threatened destruction to all within its confines - the fire had not entered the Chapel grounds."

A fire so fierce that it destroyed most everything in its path did not destroy Our Lady of Good Help.  It was 151 years after the apparition of Mary to Adele, 139 years after the miracle at Our Lady of Good Help occurred that the Roman Catholic Church finally acknowledged the visions of Adele Brise.  On December 8th, 2010 Bishop David Ricken of the Diocese of Green Bay announced, "I declare with moral certainty and in accord with the norms of the Church that the events, apparitions and locutions given to Adele Brise in October 1859 do exhibit the substance of supernatural character, and I do hereby approve these apparitions as worthy of belief (although not obligatory) by the Christian faithful."

Candles lit by visitors inside the Shrine

That declaration made Our Lady of Good Help the first and only approved Marian apparition/shrine in the United States.  You can read more about the Churches declaration and the Shrine, by going to the Diocese's website here.

Within 2 weeks of the announcement my family and I were back in Green Bay visiting for the Holidays.  It is hard to convey the feeling of knowing that this happened so close to where my in-laws were.  The first Marian Shrine in our backyard.  I took my boys and my mother-in-law and we visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help.  I didn't know what to expect.  The grounds were pretty, but looked like any other church.  The crypt where the statue of Mary is located, and the site of the original vision, is in the basement.  The Church built on top of it.  It is small, but I thought it beautiful.  I lit a candle to my father-in-law who had passed away earlier in the year, and to my cousin who was killed by her husband earlier in the year.  I finally lit a candle in honor of all my family's ancestors and prayed for awhile.

Crutches left behind
When I was done, and without disturbing the few others that were in the Shrine, I took out my camera and took some flashless photography to remember this place.  I took pictures of the crutches that people left behind.  Those that since 1859 came to the Shrine using crutches and left them behind as they walked away.

Our Lady of Good Help was being visited by newspapermen from the New York Times the day that we visited.  They asked my mother-in-law if she believed.  Without hesitating, she replied that she did.  A bit ridiculous if you thought about it.  Why would you visit if you didn't?  We weren't offended though.  We were glad that it was being reported on.  Glad to see that after so many years and so many people thinking Adele Brise was lying or demented that the Church acknowledged what she always knew to be true.

With everything that happened during the Great Peshtigo Fire, how could I or anyone not view what happened on that spot as anything other than miraculous!

The cemetery at the Shrine