The most prayerful experience of my life Print
On His Time
Written by Kevin Wondrash, Catholic Herald Staff   
Thursday, Sep. 12, 2013 -- 12:00 AM

As I follow people on Twitter and help to put together the issue of the Catholic Herald each week, I read about a lot of Catholics taking pilgrimages to the three approved Marian Shines in Wisconsin: the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians at Holy Hill, near Milwaukee; the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, in Champion, near Green Bay; and the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, near La Crosse.

I have been to two of the three sites, the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe being the only one I have yet to visit. I would now like to reflect on the first time I visited one of these shrines.

A chance to go

Back in May of 2012, I went on a one-day bus trip with parishioners from St. Christopher Parish in Verona to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion (formally known as Robinsonville).

For those that aren't familiar with what makes that shrine special, in December of 2010, Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay declared it the site of the first approved Marian apparition in the United States. It had long been a place of prayer and pilgrimage.

On October 9, 1859, Adele Brise, a young Belgian woman, said the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to her at the site of the current shrine. She said Mary asked her to teach religion to children. Soon her father built a chapel on the site and Adele started a school and a community of women to teach in it.

At the time of the trip, my chances of easily getting to Guadalupe, Lourdes, or Fatima were very slim (and still are) so I was excited when the opportunity to go to Champion came up.

Catholic 'sightseer' turned pilgrim

Going into the day, I really wasn't quite sure what to expect. I remember being nervous the day before. Maybe it was the fact I had to wake up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday, but I remember almost not wanting to go, partially because I would be one of the few young adults, and the only one among my friends going on the trip. Thankfully, I willed myself to go.

We arrived at the shrine just before 11 a.m. Mass, which was a great way to start the day.

As the day unfolded, I was in the mindset of a Catholic sightseer and the place I looked forward to seeing most was the crypt -- the actual site where the Virgin Mary appeared to Adele Brise. The crypt is below the main chapel built over the actual apparition site.

I was concerned this would be the most crowded place at the shrine. To my surprise, there weren’t more than 10 people down there praying. It had enough space for at least 40.

I was very fortunate to spend as much time as I wanted in the crypt praying.

Opening up to Our Lady

I had two intentions to pray for that particular day. One was for my first class of sophomores at St. Maria Goretti High School Youth Ministry, who were to be confirmed the next day. The other was for help in determining my vocation.

As I have become more involved with my faith and the Church these past couple of years, the topic of vocation always comes up. To be perfectly honest, I am still discerning what mine is. Thinking back on the day at the shrine, I don’t exactly remember what drove me to pray for help in that area, but I remember praying for it fervently.

Not really knowing anyone else from the group, I spent the day pretty much alone and in prayer. I had ample time at each part -- the crypt, chapel, Rosary Walk, and the Stations -- to pray as much as I wanted to, or needed to.

My simplistic thoughts of the shrine that day created the words "Catholic theme park" in my mind. Those three words don't do the site justice, but they're true.

I was never bored there, but during "down moments" -- in between the few group activities we did -- I found myself down in the crypt again. Although the word is overly used, it was awesome down there. I lit a candle for my 11 Confirmation teens. I pray Mary is still interceding on their behalf.

While kneeling in front of the statue of Mary, I tried to put myself in the place of Adele Brise as the Virgin appeared to her.

I kept telling myself "Mary was here, Mary was here," trying to get myself to fully grasp where I was and what the site meant to so many people. It's humbling looking back on it.

I embraced the silence of the crypt and found myself in prayer. "God, what am I supposed to do? What is meant for me? What do you want me to do? Where should I go? What should I do?" These are common questions that come up during any discernment. They flowed easily on that day.

It was the most face-to-face I have ever felt with God and the Blessed Mother. My challenge since then has been to listen to the answers, whenever they finally become clear.

What I gained

When I struggle with my openness to the Holy Spirit, or putting myself in a prayerful mindset, I think back on that day. Until another time takes its place, my time at the shrine was the moment in my life when I was the most "locked in."

One could easily argue at a place like the shrine, there is nothing else to do but pray, but maybe that’s the message. We all need to find times and places where there is nothing to do but pray.

Whether it was because of the atmosphere, or the fact I spent the day alone, it was certainly the most prayerful experience of my life.

Since then, I have had a stronger connection to Our Lady, even if I don’t always ask for her intercession as much as I should. What I am most thankful for is the confidence to know I can pray deeply if I discipline myself enough to do it.

There is so much more to tell about the history and things to see at the shine that simply won’t fit in this column. I encourage all of you to make a pilgrimage there if you have not already, or to go again.

Our Lady of Good Help, pray for us!

For more information on the Shine of Our Lady of Good Help, visit

Kevin Wondrash is the reporter for the Catholic Herald in Madison. He is active in the young adult community in the Diocese of Madison. He is also involved with High School Youth Ministry and other activities at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Madison. You can follow him on Twitter @CHReporterKevin