In the Garden of Eden, there were many fruit-bearing trees but Genesis mentions two by name: the Tree of Life, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. By partaking of the Tree of Life, the human race could keep living forever, but the Lord warned that to eat from the other tree would mean our certain death.
On October 9th, 1859, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared here, to 28 year-old Belgian emigrant, named Adele Brise, as she was walking 11 miles home from Sunday Mass. Interestingly, Our Lady chose to appear to Adele not in a church setting such as this, but between two trees: a Maple tree and a Hemlock tree.
You’re all familiar with the beauty and goodness of the Maple. In the fall, its leaves turn the most striking colors; and in the spring, its sap yields sweet syrup. But do you know what distinguishes the Hemlock tree? The poison that Socrates was condemned to drink came from this plant. Ingesting just six or eight fresh Hemlock leaves can kill a healthy adult. The Maple is a tree of life, while the Hemlock is a tree of death. Mary, the New Eve, stands between the two.
She tells Adele, “I am the Queen of Heaven, who prays for the conversion of sinners, and I wish you to do the same. You received Holy Communion this morning, and that is well. But you must do more. Make a general confession, and offer Communion for the conversion of sinners. If they do not convert and do penance, my Son will be obliged to punish them.”
Our Lady’s message by the trees recalls the counsel of Moses, who told the Israelites: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him. For that will mean life for you, a long life for you to live on the land….”
Apparently, Our Lady’s warnings were not sufficiently heeded. In October of 1871, The Great Peshtigo Fire erupted. In terms of both size and loss of human life, The Great Peshtigo Fire remains the worst recorded forest fire in North American history. Between 1,200 and 2,400 lives ended in that firestorm which saw, according to an eyewitness, “large wooden houses torn from their foundations and caught up like straws by two opposing currents of air which raised them till they came in contact with the stream of fire.” This seems to be the punishment due to sin that Mary spoke of, but this does not mean that everyone who perished in that fire was condemned. We should remember that at harvest time, the good wheat and the bad weeds are pulled up together in a moment, but their future fates are not the same. Once uprooted from the earth, the good are gathered and kept in the barn, while the bad are thrown away forever.
The Peshtigo firestorm came and surrounded this shrine, where hundreds had come with their families and herds, to beseech the intercession of Mary before God. As many as fled to her were saved. The morning of October 9th, 1871, twelve years to the day after Our Lady’s appearance, saw them delivered. This consecrated earth was an emerald-green island in an ocean of smoldering ashes as far as eyes could see.
After witnessing this miraculous deliverance, and seeing the lifelong dedication and fruitfulness in Adele Brise’s efforts, many began to believe that she had indeed seen and heard Our Lady. Just last year, the Church formally agreed, approving the apparitions and locutions given to Adele Brise in October of 1859 as worthy of belief by the Christian faithful. Some people will think that this official recognition closes the book on the story of Our Lady of Champion. Some will come here like tourists, excited see where Mary once appeared and go home contented. They won’t think to imagine that Mary’s message was not only meant for Adele in the past, but directed toward us today
In 1859, Mary prayed for and sought the conversion of sinners. Have we gotten less sinful since then? In 1859, Mary lamented how the young did not know the faith. How much better do we live it now? In 1859, Mary warned that if people did not convert and do penance, her Son will be obliged to punish them.” Do we need to convert and do penance? Would you be surprised if a great natural or man-made disaster befell us? How spiritually well prepared do you think people would be to face that?
I don’t think it is a coincidence that the message of Our Lady of Champion is arising to new prominence in our day. Today we heard talks about Our Lady’s Fatima apparitions, which date from 1917. At that time, Mary asked for Russia to be consecrated to her Immaculate Heart to bring about its conversion and a period of peace in the world. On March 25th, 1984, Blessed John Paul the Great consecrated Russia and the whole world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It was on the feast of the Annunciation. On Christmas, seven years later, the miracle arrived. On the evening of December 25th, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev peacefully resigned as the President of the Soviet Union and from atop the Kremlin, the Soviet flag was lowered forever. This was not a coincidence. Politics, economics, and the threat of nuclear war did no bring the Soviet Union to a stunning and peaceful end; it was the work of Jesus and Mary.
What moved Blessed John Paul the Great to consecrate Russia, so many years later after the apparitions, precisely when he did? What moved Bishop David Ricken to approve this apparition, so many years later, as our country’s first Marian apparition site, here and now in our day? In both cases, I suspect that there is more behind these events than the personal whims of men. I suspect that both acts are orchestrated for their role in God’s plan.
I don’t think that Mary’s message was meant for Adele alone, such that their relevance passed away with her death. I think Mary is asking similar things from us. But what exactly? Mary’s message focused upon interceding for sinners and teaching the faith.
Mary the Queen of Heaven, prays for the conversion of sinners, and she wishes you to do the same. You receive Holy Communion, and that is well. But you must do more. First, regularly receive the sacrament of reconciliation, for the sinner whose conversion you are most responsible for is you. I suggest going once a month, for it is effective for growing in holiness.
Next, in this state of grace, offer holy Communions for the conversion of sinners. At every Mass, the priest has an intention for which he is offering the sacrifice. This is a person or group that he asks to be graced, or a problem or need he asks to be helped, by this offering of Jesus’ sacrifice. At every Mass that you attend, you can also offer an intention of your own. Offer some of your holy Communions for the conversion of sinners. And, like the children of Fatima, you can offer your daily sacrifices, burdens borne or pleasures foregone to help those far from God. In doing this, you follow Jesus, who suffered what He endured in order to save others.
Mary also told Adele: “Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation.” Anyone who faith is immature is still a child in the faith. You can help teach them. Mary told Adele to ‘teach children their catechism, how to sign themselves with the sign of the Cross, and how to approach the sacraments.’ For children you will do one way, for adults, another, but you have something to offer them all; your children and relatives, your coworkers and acquaintances. As Mary said, “Go and fear nothing. I will help you.”
And finally, if and when a new firestorm afflicts our land, or when personal firestorms erupt in the lives of those we love, lead them to take refuge in Jesus through Mary. Confession and holiness of life, holy offerings and penances for sinners, teaching the faith to all, and leading them all to Jesus with Mary—this was Adele’s mission, and it is our mission too.