Much has been written about the great Peshtigo Fire, which claimed an estimated 2500 lives; 10 times more than the great Chicago Fire, which occurred the same day. Our intent here, however, is to show how this tragedy played an important role in the events which occurred at Robinsonville.
In early October of 1859 Adele Brise received her first vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On the following Sunday, October 9th, when the Blessed Mother appeared to Adele for the third time, she warned:
“If they do not convert and do penance, my Son will be obliged to punish them.”
We do not propose to pass judgment on the reasons for this catastrophe, but, one day short of 12 years after the Robinsonville apparition, on October 8, 1871, the great calamity fell and a tragedy begat a miracle. The Belgian colony which embraced a large part of the peninsula and included Robinsonville, was visited by the same whirlwind of fire and wind that devastated Peshtigo.
When the tornado of fire approached Robinsonville (Champion), Sister Adele and her companions were determined not to abandon the Chapel. Encircled by the inferno, the Sisters, the children, area farmers and their families fled to the Shrine for protection. The statue of Mary was raised reverently and was processed around the sanctuary. When wind and fire threatened suffocation, they turned in another direction to hope and pray, saying the rosary. Hours later, rains came in a downpour, extinguishing the fiery fury outside the Chapel. The Robinsonville area was destroyed and desolate…except for the convent, the school, the Chapel, and the five acres of land consecrated to the Virgin Mary. Though the fire singed the Chapel fence, it had not entered the Chapel grounds. Those assembled at the Chapel, realizing that they had witnessed a miracle, were asked by Sister Adele to retire to the Convent, where they were made as comfortable as possible for the rest of the night.
Chapel in 1885
In the days to follow the great fire, the poor Belgian pioneers needed no more proof that Mary’s visit to Sister Adele was genuine. Father Peter Pernin, known as the “hero of the Peshtigo Fire”, visited Sister Adele shortly after the catastrophe, and wrote…
“I have no intention either of passing judgment on the apparition of the Blessed Virgin and the pious pilgrimages which have resulted from it. Ecclesiastical authority has not yet spoken on the subject; it silently allows the good work to advance, awaiting perhaps some proof more striking and irrefutable before pronouncing its fiat. Far from me be the thought of forestalling ecclesiastical judgment.
“I have but another word to add. If it lay within the power of any of my readers to proceed to the spot and visit this humble place of pilgrimage, as yet in its infancy, and the only one, I believe, of its nature in the United States, I earnestly counsel them to go. There, they can see and question Adele Brise, who, without having sought it, is the soul and heroine of a good work, progressing with rapid strides from day to day; and I feel assured that, like myself, all those who have gone thither with an upright intention, they will return edified and happy at heart, if not convinced, of the reality of Our Lady’s apparition.”