CHAMPION — The chapel has room for 280 people.
Most prefer the basement, with its low ceiling and humming ventilation fan.
This is where hundreds of candles burn and eight tiny pews face a statue of the Virgin Mary squashing a snake.
The pilgrims come as they are, some wearing Green Bay Packers jackets and shirts, others in hunting pants or work boots.
No one keeps track of the attendance, but it’s estimated that more than 3,000 people a year find their way to the tiny shrine on Highway K where prayer candles are $3.50 and plastic crucifixes are sold for $1.
But 2011 will be unlike any other in the 152-year history of the shrine at Our Lady of Good Help, just off one of the main routes to the Door Peninsula and its collection of wineries, cherry orchards and state parks.
Pilgrims from around the country are descending on this farming community, in Kewaunee County about 15 miles northeast of Green Bay, to seek peace and healing and to pray. Last month, Bishop David Ricken of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay approved three apparitions of the Virgin Mary that were seen in 1859 by Adele Brise, a 29-year-old Belgium immigrant.
It is the only church-approved apparition in the United States and joins others around the world such as Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City; Lourdes, France; and Fatima, Portugal.
“We hope it doesn’t change a bit,” said Veronica Schmelzer, 42, of nearby Casco. She has come to the shrine since she was a little girl. “It’s a part of our daily lives, so it’s kind of odd having it so public,” she said last week.
The shrine is no secret to those in the area, and signs along Highway 57 direct motorists to the site. In 1954, an estimated 20,000 people attended the Aug. 15 outdoor Mass for the annual Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Attendance for the Mass in recent years, however, has been around 1,500.
Old site hits the big time
When Ricken made his announcement Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the story was picked up by media around the world. An estimated 200 to 300 people a day have visited the site, and on some days between Christmas and New Year’s there were 1,000 visitors.
The shrine shut down its online prayer candle requests so those visiting in person could have a place for their candle.
“We had candles everywhere. We just couldn’t keep up,” said Karen Tipps, a caretaker on the grounds for 18 years. “We really felt bad shutting that down.”
Tipps has been busy fielding phone calls and answering e-mails from school groups, churches and others from around the state and from bus tour groups around the country. Her big concern is being able to stagger the visits by tour groups, which she likes to divide into smaller groups rotating them between the gift shop, crypt, chapel and, when the weather cooperates, the stations of the cross.
“I’ve bought myself a great big calendar for scheduling all these groups,” Tipps said. “It’s going to be an adjustment.”
A larger parking lot is scheduled to be paved this spring, and diocese officials are considering plans for an addition to the crypt that would offer more bathrooms and make the shrine, built on the spot of the apparitions, handicap accessible.
“As more people are coming, it’s something we’d like to have done soon, but it has to be done right,” said the Rev. John Doerfler, rector of the shrine. “We want to make sure that whatever is done, it fosters the spirit of prayer.”
‘Sign that God is active’
John Kruse, 43, of suburban Detroit, was in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on business last week but made the two-hour-plus drive from Escanaba to visit. Kruse, who has visited other apparition sites around the world, expects thousands to make their way to Champion.
“This place will explode (with visitors),” said Kruse. “It’s another sign that God is active.”
Juan Valero came to pray with his wife Teresa and 3-year-old son Benjamin who has been sick. The family came from Oshkosh and likely will return, especially when other family members visit from Mexico.
“It’s a very peaceful place. I was excited to come,” Juan Valero said. “I feel like I have to be here.”
Peg Gallagher, a retired school teacher on the Menominee Indian Reservation, last visited the shrine when she was a teenager. She drove from her home in Shawano last week to pray and take in the peace and quiet of the crypt.
“It’s a very simple place,” Gallagher said. “It brought back memories of my Catholic faith as a child.”
A guest registry at the crypt’s entrance showed visitors from Wisconsin, Illinois, Oregon and Virginia. Greg Thome of Pleasanton, Calif., was visiting family in Allouez, a Green Bay suburb. His mother-in-law visits the shrine about once a week during the summer.
“There’s a spirit of grace that seems to be present here,” said Thome, 59, a hospital consultant. “It’s located in such a humble place.”
If you ever make it to Green Bay (which I strongly advise...the Packers the best football team EVER!!!), I would make a stop and venerate the apparition. His Excellency, Bishop David Ricken has approved it, so you may go without any reservation at all....being so close to Iowa, I plan on making a trip there myself.