In the summer of 1853, 10 families from Belgium settled just east of Green Bay. They were the first in a wave of 15,000 Belgian immigrants who would soon populate the region where Brown, Door and Kewaunee counties come together. Among them was Adele Brisse, a young peasant woman who came with her parents. The Brisse family established a remote farm northwest of the village of Luxembourg, and young Adele often helped carry its wheat several miles to a mill at Dyckesville, on the bay shore.
She also walked several miles to church each Sunday, following an Indian trail that ran to Bay Settlement. On the morning of Sunday, April 15, 1858, Adele was passing through some woods in Robinsonville when she was over-powered by a vision that she later described to a nun, who related it this way:
“… there appeared between two trees, one a maple and the other a hemlock, which stood for years after, a blinding white light which paralyzed the poor girl with fear. She cowered before it and prayed rapidly and breathlessly as the light took definite form, and between the trees stood a marvelously beautiful lady, clothed entirely in dazzling white garments, with no touch of color save a wide yellow sash or girdle. Her hair was auburn; her eyes deep and dark and she bore a radiant and kindly smile. Adele trembled with fear. The vision faded gradually away.” (Green Bay Gazette, August 13, 1925)
The next Sunday she traveled the same route with companions to show them the spot (location B on the map linked above). When they reached the two trees, Adele collapsed involuntarily to her knees as the vision re-appeared, though her friends saw nothing unusual. When they arrived at the church, a priest advised her that if it happened again, she should ask the beatific lady why she had appeared.
For the next several weeks curious crowds followed Adele through the woods each Sunday but nothing unusual happened. Then, on October 9, 1858, her friends saw Adele once again fall to her knees between the maple and the hemlock and ask aloud, “In the name of God, who are you and what do you wish of me?”
“‘I am the queen of the heavens’ she said in a soft and wonderful voice, ‘who prays for the conversion of sinners. I want you to do the same.’” The visionary woman told Adele, an illiterate peasant, to start a religious school for the area’s children, who lived many miles from any teacher and risked growing up in ignorance.
Although she felt unqualified, and was initially rejected by church authorities, Adele succeeded in raising enough funds to start. A neighbor donated five acres around the school and chapel, and her father built a 10×12 foot wooden chapel at the site of the visions. Adele soon managed to open a free school, and was joined by a local nun named Sister Pauline who carried the church and school into the 20th century (and is the main source for their early history).
When she was rejected by authorities and scoffed at by skeptics, Adele requested divine assistance, and miracle cures began to occur in the chapel. Tales of blind visitors regaining sight, of the desperately sick being cured, and of cripples restored to health began to spread. Behind the altar, a collection of discarded crutches and canes gradually built up (photo).
Another supposed sign of divine intervention occurred during the famous Peshtigo Fire. On October 9-10, 1871, (the anniversary of Adele’s third vision), this massive fire spread through 400 square miles of northeastern Wisconsin, killing about 1,500 people. On the east side of Green Bay, it rapidly spread through the Belgian region. While others fled toward the lake for refuge, Adele and her community called on divine power for protection. They lifted the statue of the Blessed Virgin from the chapel and, carrying it above their heads, circled the buildings while praying for deliverance. The forest fire devastated the land all around them and spread right up to the fence surrounding their enclave — but did not leap over it. Their wooden school and church stood out like an island in the charred landscape. (Catholic Herald, May 23, 1935)
Descriptions of cures and divine intervention turned the little church and school into one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in the Midwest, and it earned the nickname “Wisconsin?s Lourdes.” Adele Brisse died in 1896 but the chapel and school are still there, now known as Our Lady of Good Help in New Franken, Wis. Visitors still come each August 15th to celebrate the Catholic holiday known as the Feast of the Assumption, to see the location of the vision and miracles, and to re-enact the sparing of the chapel during the Peshtigo Fire.
[Note: The Catholic Church does not officially recognize any events described above as official miracles, nor does it consider Adele Brisse a saint.]