Adele Brise (Brice) was born in Belgium to Lambert and Catherine Brise on January 30, 1831. Although she suffered an accident at a young age that left her blind in her right eye, those who knew her best describe her cheerfulness, fervent piety, and simple religious ways.
Upon receiving her first Holy Communion, Adele and a few close friends promised the Blessed Virgin Mary that they would devote their lives to becoming religious teaching sisters in Belgium. However, this promise grew difficult to keep when her parents decided to move to America alongside other Belgium settlers. After seeking advice from her confessor, she was told to be obedient to her parents. He assured her that if the Lord willed her to become a teacher and a sister, she would serve in that vocation in America.
After the six-week voyage to America, the Brise family joined the largest Belgian settlement – near present-day Champion, Wisconsin. Belgian pioneers’ and settlers’ lives were difficult, and many died in the harsh Wisconsin winters. Adele served her family’s needs by often taking grain to the grist mill.
On October 8th, 1871, almost twelve years to the date of Mary’s last appearance to Adele, the Great Peshtigo Fire broke out. It is still considered to this day the most devastating fire in United States history, killing between 1,200-2,400 people and burning 1.2 million acres. Due to the high winds and dry grounds, the fire quickly became a storm of fire and roared like a tornado right toward the Shrine’s grounds.
Desperate for help, people from the surrounding countryside fled to the Chapel where Adele and her companions were praying for Mary’s protection. Lifting the statue of Mary, those there that night processed around the sanctuary, praying the rosary and singing hymns to Jesus and the Blessed Mother. When the wind and fire threatened suffocation, they would turn in another direction to pray. Early the next morning, it is believed that a steady rain came and extinguished the flames of the fire.
The following is the account of Father Peter Pernin, a local priest who described the grounds after the events.
“After hours of horror and suspense, the heavens sent relief in the form of a downpour. The fervent prayers to the Mother of God were heard. The fire was extinguished, but dawn revealed the ravages wrought by the conflagration. Everything about them was destroyed; miles of desolation everywhere. But the convent, school, and chapel on the holy land consecrated to the Virgin Mary shone like an emerald isle in a sea of ashes. The raging fire licked the outside palings and left charred scars as mementos. Tongues of fire had reached the chapel fence, and threatened destruction to all within its confines; the fire had not entered the Chapel grounds.”
Fr. Peter Pernin
Although the fire charred the outside of the Shrine’s fence, it had not harmed the grounds. However, the area surrounding the grounds was destroyed, and the only livestock to survive were the cattle the farmers led to the chapel. While many deeper wells in the area went dry, the chapel’s shallow well gave the cattle enough water to survive the heat.
To this day, many descendants of those whose lives were spared during the October 8, 1871 fire come to celebrate the miracle on its anniversary. October 8 continues to draw thousands of people from around the country to visit the Shrine and join in all-night prayer into October 9 – the date historians believe marks the anniversary of Mary’s last appearance to Adele.
Adele and her Sisters continued to teach and catechize the children long after the devastating fire. Their presence had a lasting effect on the people of the community. She lived out her ministry with zeal and love of God and Mary. Adele died on July 5, 1896, and is buried in the cemetery located near The Apparition Chapel on the grounds of the National Shrine.
Adele Brise, the visionary who witnessed Our Lady in Champion, never learned to read or write and thus chronicled her experiences with the Blessed Mother verbally. Because of this, the above apparition account was developed based on a compilation of oral history from Adele and sources close to her, historical documents, and second and third-hand accounts found in the archives of the Shrine. While some details vary, the account strives to do its best in determining the most common and consistent information across the various historical materials. The constant testimony of the Christian faithful since Our Lady’s appearance to Adele, along with numerous divine favors granted, led the bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay, after a formal investigation, to declare the apparition at Champion as ‘worthy of belief’ on December 8th, 2010.