Devout Catholics across the state are making pilgrimages to a sacred shrine in Wisconsin.
Cornfields and towering grain silos line the Minnesota Catholics' approach to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help. The smell of manure wafts from nearby dairy farms.
But the parking lot where the motor coach stops is newly graveled, and plans to expand beyond the shrine's small brick church and gift shop are in progress. Because like this group from Hastings, pilgrims are coming.
It's here at this modest shrine in the heart of Wisconsin farm country, where Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared more than 150 years ago. Eight months ago, the bishop in nearby Green Bay officially validated the apparitions, making the shrine the first such holy site in the country and one of only a dozen or so in the world.
Since then, regular visitors to the site have grown from a few hundred a year to a few thousand a week. The Hastings group numbers 19.
For the Minnesota pilgrims, a miracle isn't the goal of their two-day trip, though they would welcome one. It's mostly about seeking a closer connection to the Almighty through the mother of Christ.
"It's like heaven touching earth," said Joanne Knoll, "It is very moving, to know she was there."
A wait of 150 years
Early morning sunlight filtered through the clouds at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Hastings last month as the pilgrims readied themselves for the nearly 300-mile journey.
Of the church's nearly 10,000 members, several have gone on other pilgrimages to places where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared: Lourdes in France, Fatima in Portugal and Medjugorje in Yugoslavia.
Joanne and Jerry Knoll have led trips to Medjugorje, and Jerry is a driver for a motor coach company, so it was natural that they would come up with the idea of this pilgrimage.
"It's exciting for me because I can get out of this day-to-day monotony and go over there and relax and pray and not have to worry about anything else," said Jerry, 61.
As Jerry Knoll steered the bus east, somebody hit "Play" and a DVD told the story of the shrine.
In 1855, a pious young woman by the name of Adele Brise left her native Belgium and settled on the Green Bay peninsula with her family. In October 1859, she was 28 and on her way to a grist mill when she saw a lady clothed all in white standing between two trees. She froze and watched until the vision slowly disappeared. The following Sunday, the lady in white appeared again to Adele in the same place while she was on her way to mass.
She saw the figure once more. This time the lady identified herself as the "Queen of Heaven" and implored Brise to teach children about their Catholic faith. Brise devoted her life to that mission. At first, she traveled the peninsula on foot, going from home to home to teach children. She was eventually joined by other young women who later helped her found a church, convent and school near the site of the apparitions.
Drawn by reports of cures, conversions and other signs of a divine presence at the shrine, thousands of faithful have visited the site. Bishops have said mass there. But it wasn't until the tenure of Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, in January 2009, that the church opened an investigation into the apparitions.
While there have been many reported sightings of Mary, the Catholic church is wary of fabrications and rarely investigates. The Vatican leaves evaluations up to local bishops.
Bishop Ricken appointed Marian scholars who studied Brise's correspondence and other supporting documents. They looked into the credibility of her character and the history of devotion at the shrine.
On Dec. 8, 2010, Ricken validated the apparitions, declaring they "exhibit the substance of supernatural character" and are "worthy of belief."
Our Lady of Good Help became an official Marian apparition site.
The shrine beckons
The 8-acre shrine property is not in the league of more well-known Marian shrines: Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Mexico, with its 20 million visitors a year, or Lourdes, with its healing spring water.
But Our Lady of Good Help is growing, evidenced by new bathrooms, new parking lot and freshly laid sod. Karen Tipps, who has managed the shrine property with her husband for nearly 20 years, said many pilgrims who tour the shrine share the sentiment that, "'Finally, a place we can go [in the U.S.] We can't afford to travel overseas but now we can visit a shrine in our own country,'" she said.
The validation is "something we were always praying would happen. It's something people need, the people that wouldn't come until the church ruled on it."
As word continues to spread, the Green Bay diocese hopes to acquire 50 acres next to the shrine to build a bigger church, a visitors center with dining facilities and space for education purposes, said the Rev. Peter Stryker, rector of the shrine.
An enriching experience
Following a mass at the shrine, the Minnesota pilgrims made their way down a short stairway to a small room below the church, on the spot where the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared. Eight small pews face a statue of Mary, robed in a flowing white and blue garment and wearing a crown.
With no air conditioning, the dimly lit room retains heat from the summer outside and the dozens of burning votive candles. A glass case displays dozens of wooden crutches and canes, samples of the many left behind by a long line of people who believe they were healed at the shrine.
Ernest Duffing and his wife, Gloria, prayed before the statue, asking Mary for good health for family members -- and for Duffing, 72, who has had quadruple bypass surgery and suffers from a bad heart valve. "She's been there for us so often," Duffing said. For years, he's prayed the rosary regularly to get through depression and other health problems, he said.
Laura Teuber, 70, prayed for a nephew dealing with cancer in his lungs and brain. "Then I'll be praying for my son and three grandchildren. That everything goes well in their life."
Jean Eggett's prayer turned out to be a thanks rather than a request. She had been tested for different types of cancer, and just before this pilgrimage she got the news: no cancer. "I was walking scared," she said. "The big thing for me is the whole idea that the Blessed Mother was present there. I still think she's present there."
After leaving the shrine, Joanne Knoll could barely hold back tears.
"When I go to these places, the first place it touches is my heart," Knoll said. "There are a lot people who would like to do pilgrimages and can't afford to. This is in our own back yard and it's reachable and attainable. It gives more people here an opportunity."