At dawn my brother and I arrived at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, Wis. The place was deserted, except for one woman on her knees who looked like she never left the shrine, like Anna who never left the Temple. I found my way to the crypt chapel and knelt before a statue of Mary. Amid the flowers and flickering votive lamps, I prayed. My brother lit a candle, gave me a hug and then drove away. And then, through a light rain and howling wind, I left the chapel and started walking down a lonely farm road. I was on pilgrimage, not in a foreign land, but back where I had been born and raised. I was on the Wisconsin Way.
This new pilgrimage links the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, near Green Bay, with the Basilica and National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians (popularly known as “Holy Hill”), northwest of Milwaukee. Much of the 130-mile route passes through the Kettle Moraine, a long swath of land in eastern Wisconsin carved by glaciers into a postcard-worthy landscape of lakes, hills, ridges and plains. Several days are spent on the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, which winds through hardwood forests and wetlands. Other segments of the pilgrimage follow rural roads over rolling hills quilted with dairy farms. Lodging is found at the monasteries, churches and, if necessary, campsites that dot the way.
While the component trails and roads of the pilgrimage are well marked, a traveler will see no signs for the Wisconsin Way nor find a detailed map of it. Knowledge of the route is passed on through word-of-mouth, bringing back the type of oral cartography by which travel was done in this land for centuries, first by native peoples, then by European explorers, traders and settlers. (Of course, having Google Maps and a pinpoint GPS on your smartphone somewhat breaks the analogy.) This gives the Wisconsin Way a nascent, pioneer quality and generates an excitement characteristic of new ventures.
I was on pilgrimage, not in a foreign land, but back where I had been born and raised. I was on the Wisconsin Way.
As I set out the first morning of my journey, that enthusiasm filled me. It was the Monday after Pentecost, the memorial of Mary, Mother of the Church. There were no other pilgrims to be seen, and yet, confident in the Holy Spirit and Our Lady, I had the wild-eyed hope that someday the Wisconsin Way will be mapped and marked and that a pilgrim path akin to the great ones of Europe will emerge right here in the United States. I imagined Chinese Catholics 800 years from now coming to the United States to tread old Christian pilgrimage routes, just as we Americans now go to Europe.
It was back in the old continent, where I had been living off-and-on the previous few years, that my desire to make a pilgrimage had grown. It was fueled by signs persistent and occasional and a restlessness born from too many hours in cramped library carrels. There was the evening I answered the doorbell at the Jesuit parish in Germany where I was working and was greeted by a pilgrim who was walking—for the second time—from Poland to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela and back. There was the phone conversation with my spiritual father in which I was lamenting the civilizational and ecclesial disintegration of our time, and he said: “When things are collapsing, go into the desert. There are no buildings to fall on you there.”
But which desert?
Then, on an Easter visit to Czestochowa, I knew. The devotion of the pilgrims at this Polish shrine moved me, but I had seen that before—at Czestochowa and at Lourdes and Fatima, Altötting and Marija Bistrica. No, this time I was struck by how the Black Madonna was theirs. She belonged to these people, and they belonged to her. This mutual possession—we might even call it love—was forged during a long history involving Hussites and Swedes, Nazis and Communists, and is renewed every August as pilgrims leave Warsaw and journey 140 miles over nine days to their Madonna.
The Poles at Czestochowa appeared to me as contemporary anawim: unfashionably dressed, a bit corpulent—a striking contrast to the Coco Chanel-clad Parisians of le septième arrondissement where I was living that spring. Most of the pilgrims at Czestochowa would not have had the financial resources to fly to Spain or Mexico City to make a pilgrimage. Nor had they need: Why journey abroad when Our Lady resides in your homeland?
I imagined Chinese Catholics 800 years from now coming to the United States to tread old Christian pilgrimage routes, just as we Americans now go to Europe.
The call then hit me like a flash: Go back home and make a pilgrimage in Wisconsin. For, according to the local bishop, the Queen of Heaven had visited there.
In 2010, David L. Ricken, the bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay, issued a decree affirming the supernatural character of apparitions of Our Lady received by a young Belgian immigrant woman, Adele Brise, in 1859 near the small village of Robinsonville, Wis. (now Champion). This declaration made it the first Marian apparition in the United States with ecclesiastical approval. The woman clothed in dazzling white introduced herself as the “Queen of Heaven” and had a simple message for Adele: Work for the conversion of sinners and instruct the children of this “wild country” in what is needed for salvation—the catechism, the Sign of the Cross and reception of the sacraments. Within months, a shrine was erected on the site of the visions.
In 1871, the deadliest fire in American history swept through the region, killing more than 1,500 people and scorching all the farmland surrounding the shrine—right up to the property’s fence. Miraculously, the five-acre grounds of the sanctuary, to which many had fled for refuge, were left untouched. Later, physical healings were reported: the blind received sight, the lame walked. In 2009 a commission was launched, which included Marian experts investigating the doctrinal fidelity of the locutions and the integrity of Adele’s life. The investigation and a century and a half of local devotion culminated in Bishop Ricken’s decree.
Three of the years I had lived in Europe were spent in Rome, where I showed the city’s saints, streets and churches to tourists—mostly Catholics and mostly Americans. I never tired of recounting the life of St. Ignatius Loyola while showing his rooms or lecturing on the frescoes of the Church of the Gesù. Yet I began to feel what the Italians would call un disagio—uneasiness—during these tours. I wondered why we American Catholics—myself included—were such voracious consumers of Catholic culture but not its creators.
I wondered why we American Catholics—myself included—were such voracious consumers of Catholic culture but not its creators.
We visit stunning churches in Europe and tend to build bland ones at home. Our theology, in the main, is regurgitated thought by German and French scholars like Karl Rahner and Henri de Lubac. For pilgrimages, we Americans ignore the kitschy Marian shrine next door and—all dressed up like REI models—fly to Spain and hit the Camino (thereby also fleeing the poor folks lighting candles in the neighborhood shrine, whose horizons and budgets make travel to Europe unthinkable).
I know this all first-hand; it describes much of my life. I sought God as a pilgrim in distant lands and ignored God’s presence at home.
Lines from the theologian Stanley Hauerwas haunted me: “In Italy, Christianity is in the stones, and in America, we have no stones. The Christianity in America is not thick in practices that actually form bodies to understand better what it means to be Christian.” In terms of church attendance, the United States is more religious than most of Europe. Yet Catholicism has never given birth to culture in America the way it has in Sicily or Bavaria, where even now cities remain built around the cathedral square, and shops close on Corpus Christi and the Assumption.
Even if such structuring of space and time is a remnant of a lost world, people who inhabit such places still have Catholicism in their bones in a way different than American Catholics. In this country, religion tends to be more propositional, more based on voluntary association. Pockets of Catholic culture have existed and continue to exist in the United States, but these are largely immigrant Catholicisms borrowed from the old countries. Their vibrancy fades as one Americanizes.
Pockets of Catholic culture have existed and continue to exist in the United States, but these are largely immigrant Catholicisms borrowed from the old countries. Their vibrancy fades as one Americanizes.
Yet wherever the faith is strong it generates culture. It produces Christian stones. But how might one do so in 21st-century America without being exclusive or anachronistic?
I found one example where I least expected it, back home, where believers were quietly at work making the stones Christian by walking on them as religious pilgrims along the Wisconsin Way.
The pilgrimage was the brainchild of the Rev. Andrew Kurz, a priest of the Diocese of Green Bay, who leads several Wisconsin Way pilgrimages each year. They take various forms. Some are nearly two-week hikes; others last for just a few days and blend travel on foot and in cars.
I had decided to travel alone. Here I was, I thought, a pilgrim with no marked path. I couldn’t decide if I was more like the first Christian in this land or the last. Sometimes I imagined myself as a Jesuit missionary, crucifix in hand, setting foot on a new shore. At other times, lines from G. K. Chesterton’s “Lepanto” danced in my head—“the last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall”—and I would think, that’s me.
But over time that mysterious process every pilgrim knows began. The surrounding silence, the rhythm of one’s body—step after step, mile after mile—quiets the clanging of our cluttered minds and souls (stilling, mercifully, even our romanticism), cultivating that interior silence that draws us to the desert in the first place.
Wherever the faith is strong it generates culture. It produces Christian stones. But how might one do so in 21st-century America without being exclusive or anachronistic?
As I walked along and the days passed, I saw that I was hardly the first Christian in this land. Each small town had a Catholic church—often a magnificent one. Out in the fields where the corn and soybeans were springing up, there were roadside shrines of the kind one might expect to see in Bavaria or the Tyrol. My path took me through a region Wisconsinites still call “The Holyland” on account of its abundance of handsome churches erected in the 19th century by Rhenish immigrants.
I passed through St. Nazianz, a small farming village begun when a charismatic priest, the Rev. Ambrose Oschwald, left the Black Forest for Wisconsin in 1854. A whole village followed him, setting up a Catholic community modeled on the early Christians in the Acts of the Apostles, in which everything was held in common.
One daydreams on the long road. As I walked, I found myself wanting to go back to the Catholicism of the ’50s and early ’60s—not the 1950s but the 1850s, when my immigrant ancestors settled the Wisconsin frontier and my great-great-great grandfather donated a piece of his land to the first bishop of Milwaukee to found the parish in which I grew up.
I longed not for the early 1960s but the early 1660s, when French Jesuits set up missions in present-day Wisconsin. There was no evidence of the blackrobes, but nonetheless I thought of them frequently, offering the first Mass in this land, first speaking the holy name of Jesus.
Sometimes I would look up and think of a vision one of the missionaries, St. Jean de Brebeuf, once had: a massive cross in the sky extending across the whole continent, large enough for each Jesuit to shoulder a portion of the beam. At other times I would gaze at the sky and imagine it as Mary’s blue mantle protectively draped over the whole land, like paintings I had seen in Germany of the Schutzmantelmadonna gathering her children.
Sometimes I would look up and think of a vision St. Jean de Brebeuf once had: a massive cross in the sky extending across the whole continent, large enough for each Jesuit to shoulder a portion of the beam.
I learned that I was not the last of her children in this land. My first night was at a flourishing Carmelite monastery, where women—many of them young—go about habited and barefoot behind the walls of a cloister. They are cut off from the world so as to be supernaturally devoted to the world through unceasing prayer. Another evening was at an Eastern Catholic monastery, where that same spirit is lived by the monks, with their beards, bells and billows of incense. Most stops, however, were at country parishes, old rectories where no priest had resided for years—there just aren’t many anymore—but where steady lay men and women had kept the place running with joy and generosity.
Having hobbled on sore legs and blistered feet to a parish on the penultimate day of my journey, I remarked to the youth minister there, Eileen Belongea, that I was glad to be almost finished. “What do you mean?” she playfully shot back, “You’ve still got hundreds of miles to go!” Eileen, a consecrated virgin, had not only done the Champion-Holy Hill route several times, but once, on the 10th anniversary of her consecration, had completed the “full” Wisconsin Way, continuing on to Wisconsin’s third Marian shrine, Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, a 400-mile journey that took her 30 days.
Like the storytellers in The Canterbury Tales, Eileen and I swapped tales of rainstorms and barking dogs and the good people we had met on the way. We also talked about Adele Brise. I had thought a lot about Adele as I walked, about the Lady she encountered, the message she received. The bishop’s decree says in big bold letters that believing in this apparition is not obligatory, since it is a private revelation, not a doctrine like the divinity of Christ. Did I believe it? I wanted to—and Pascal says that the one who seeks God has already found him.
I believe that Our Lady is the Queen of Heaven. I believe in the devotion of the people who had come to the shrine for more than a century and in what those visits had done for their faith. I believe in the hope contained in Mary’s parting words to Adele—“Go and fear nothing. I will help you”—and in the continued relevance of Our Lady’s message at Champion, which, after all, was simply the Gospel: teach the faith, care for the children, repent. In a world of empty churches, children in detention camps, mass shootings, we need that message. We need to be healed, converted and instructed in the way of Jesus.
God is found not only in the exotic but also in the familiar. “I am the light of the world,” Jesus says. That is the whole world, at all times.
This change must happen in the depths of our being, in our hearts, from which arise those religious practices that themselves give birth to culture. Among these practices are pilgrimages, which seem to be assuming a special role in our time. Somehow pilgrimages gently speak to people wary of dogmatism but eager to wander, people starved for a unified experience of body and soul in a disembodied, technocratic culture that has rent them asunder. Even in countries where church attendance is declining, long-neglected medieval paths are once again trod by the boots of pilgrims.
That is not yet the case on the Wisconsin Way. I passed a few hikers on the trails, but no one, as far I could tell, who was on a religious pilgrimage; although maybe, in another sense, they all were. When I would duck into a gas station to buy a bottle of Gatorade or a bag of trail mix, the cashiers—garrulous Midwesterners bordering on the inquisitorial—would see my pack and ask where I was going, how far. I would explain. “Never heard of such a thing,” they would reply, sometimes as they slipped me a free Landjäger. One woman blurted out, “What are you doing that for—are you nuts?” The possibility had crossed my mind, especially when I was pushing out the last few hundred yards of a 20-mile day, with—as T. S. Eliot has his Magi say—“the voices singing in our ears, saying/ That this was all folly.”
Then on the last morning, I caught a glimpse of Holy Hill miles away on the horizon, the basilica’s twin steeples straining toward heaven. The church is perched on the highest hill in the region—geologists call it a kame, formed 10,000 years ago as meltwater rushed through a sheet of glacial ice, depositing sediment into a massive conical mound. Jesuit missionaries were the first Christians to discover the place.
Where I come from, we, too, have Our Lady, and a new pilgrim path on which she guides us to her son.
Legend has it that the Jesuit priest Jacques Marquette consecrated the hill to the Blessed Virgin Mary and erected a stone altar and wooden cross on it. Nearly two centuries later, in the mid-1800s, François Soubrio, a Frenchman working as a professor’s assistant in Quebec, came upon a 17th-century map of the Jesuit missions on which Holy Hill was marked. He felt called—possibly in penance for a murder he had committed—to find the hill and live there as a hermit. Irish immigrant farmers arrived in 1842. At some point in the early 1860s, they came upon Soubrio and thus called the place “Hermit’s Hill.” A series of chapels were built at the site, culminating in the current basilica, completed in 1931. Many healings have been reported at Holy Hill (a collection of discarded crutches and canes greets one at the entrance to the shrine), although, as one of the Discalced Carmelite friars who care for the place once told me, “the real miracles happen in the confessional.”
I had visited Holy Hill countless times. As a boy, my family would climb the bell tower in October to look down at the palette of fall foliage. In college, I even lived at the monastery for a few weeks, discerning a vocation with the Carmelites. Seeing Holy Hill after having walked more than a hundred miles to it, however, was seeing it with fresh eyes. It looked like the new Jerusalem descending from heaven. I thought of Chartres and the experience medieval pilgrims must have had as they finally spotted the cathedral after a long and dangerous journey, the Gothic spires seeming to grow out of the wheat fields as they drew nearer.
As I walked up the final steps to Holy Hill, I passed an old oak cross on which was carved, “Ich bin das Leben, wer an mich glaubt wird selig" (“I am the life, whoever believes in me will be blessed”), and I thought about a homily I had heard at Chartres the year before. Cardinal Robert Sarah asked the thousands of pilgrims who filled the cathedral: You’ve walked for days through rain and under the hot sun, you’ve prayed, but have you really welcomed the light of Jesus into your hearts? “Because if God is not our light,” Cardinal Sarah continued, “all the rest becomes useless.”
For years I had traveled to faraway places and, in a sense, to faraway times in search of that light: 13th-century France, 16th-century Rome. Nine days of walking back home, in the present moment, taught me that is unnecessary. God is found not only in the exotic but also in the familiar. “I am the light of the world,” Jesus says. That is the whole world, at all times. Even 21st-century America. As I knelt in thanksgiving before the statue of Mary in the shrine at Holy Hill, I thought back to the pilgrims at Czestochowa with their Black Madonna. I felt at peace, no longer feeling envy toward them but solidarity. Where I come from, we, too, have Our Lady, and a new pilgrim path on which she guides us to her son.