- The Negotiation of Authority at a Frontier Marian Apparition Site: Adele Brise and Our Lady of Good Help
In December 2010, Bishop David Ricken of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, gave his official approval to a Marian apparition, which had occurred in rural Champion, Wisconsin, over 150 years before, making Our Lady of Good Help the first officially approved Marian apparition site in the United States. This article explores some of the ways in which the narratives surrounding this apparition and the biography of the seer, Adele Brise, have been simultaneously contested and controlled by the hierarchy, often through selective omission of details that would point away from the seer’s identity as a docile and obedient daughter of the church. Adele Brise, like all visionary seers, was a potentially dangerous and destabilizing force who represented a challenge to hierarchical authority. Both her person and the story of her life and visions have therefore had to be either suppressed or tamed by the succession of bishops in whose diocese this powerful site continues to exist.
On December 8, 2010, after two years of research and investigation, Bishop David Ricken of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, proclaimed that a Marian apparition which had occurred in rural Champion (or Robinsonville) Wisconsin 150 years before was “worthy of belief.”1 This official decree elevated the Our Lady of Good Help shrine and the apparitions that occurred there to the level of Lourdes, Fatima, and Guadalupe, and made it the only Marian apparition site in the United States to have been granted this status. Since first appearing to a young, unmarried recent immigrant from Belgium in the uncleared forest of northeastern Wisconsin, Our Lady of Good Help has existed in a state of tension between the male clerical authority of the bishops and the lay and mostly female [End Page 1] authority of the seer, her fellow sisters, and the pilgrims who have come after them. Now that the shrine has been approved and sanctioned by the church, there is an accompanying official story regarding the apparitions and the visionary Adele Brise (January 30, 1831 – July 5, 1896) found on the website and in brochures and pamphlets. It is clear, however, from the examination of archival records, news reports, and personal recollections, that the way the apparition functioned for Adele and for those who knew her is not identical with the account now offered by the hierarchy. In fact, the bishop’s interpretation differs, contradicts, and elaborates upon the available material in significant ways.2 The church’s account also omits possible influences on Adele’s apparition, most significantly the 1846 Marian apparition at La Salette, France, and it consistently ignores or reinterprets many details which point away from Adele’s official identity as docile and always obedient to the hierarchy. An examination of these discrepancies can illuminate many aspects of the dynamic and ongoing relationship between the authority of the church to name and control saints, apparitions, and pilgrimage sites, and the power of the faithful who create their own meanings from these people, locations, and experiences.
This article has been structured in two main parts. The first will trace some of the disjunctions between the hierarchy’s official account of Adele’s biography and apparition, and important elements of the archival record – elements that are modified in official accounts so that Adele can be cast as obedient and pious, or so the faithful will not be confused or misled by problematic aspects of the locution. The second part of the paper will examine the negotiation of power between popular and hierarchical Catholicism at the Our Lady of Good Help apparition site and shrine, in order to illuminate some ways in which an otherwise nearly powerless nineteenth-century Catholic immigrant woman was able to create lasting meaning for herself and her community. The prophetic and pastoral power Adele gained through this apparition would otherwise have been completely unavailable to her by the patriarchal church, whose denial of power and authority to immigrant Catholic women throughout the United [End Page 2] States was nearly total.3 Adele Brise, a popular saint who enjoyed unmediated access to the divine...