In the Garden of Eden, there were many fruit-bearing trees, but Genesis mentions only 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 near Green Bay to a 28 year-old Belgian immigrant named Adele Brise while she was walking eleven miles home from Sunday Mass. Interestingly, Our Lady chose to appear to Adele not in a church, or a thousand other places, but between two trees: a Maple and a Hemlock.
You’re 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 about the Hemlock tree? The poison that the Greek philosopher 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, stood between the two.
Mary told 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 between the two trees is akin the words 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, exactly twelve years later, disaster came. Both in terms of size and number of lives lost, the Peshtigo Fire remains the worst recorded forest fire in U.S. 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, yet this does not mean that everyone who perished in that fire was condemned. We should remember that at harvest time, the wheat and the weeds are pulled up together in a moment, but their future fates are not the same. Once uprooted, the good are gathered and kept in the barn, while the bad are thrown away forever.
The firestorm came and surrounded the shrine of Our Lady, where hundreds had come for refuge with their families and herds, beseeching her intercession before God. As many as fled to her there were saved. The shrine’s consecrated earth was an emerald-green island in an ocean of smoldering ashes as far as eyes could see.
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. Begin by receiving the sacrament of reconciliation regularly, because it is powerful for growing in holiness. The sinner whose conversion you are most responsible for is your own.