“The beautiful Queen of Heaven said, ‘Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they must know for salvation.’”
When I think about apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, places like Fatima, Lourdes, and Guadalupe come to the forefront of my mind. But what about Wisconsin?
Theoni Bell’s The Woman in the Trees brings to life the first Marian apparition approved in the United States. In October 1859, Our Lady appeared to Adele Brise, a twenty-eight-year-old Belgian immigrant. The Blessed Mother wore a dazzling white dress, with a yellow sash tied around her waist. A crown of stars adorned her head, over her long, golden hair. Standing elevated between two trees, she entrusted Adele with a mission: catechize the young immigrant children and pray for the conversion of sinners.
Teach them their catechism, how to sign themselves with the sign of the Cross, and how to approach the sacraments; that is what I wish you to do. Go and fear nothing, I will help you.
In response, Adele traversed the wilderness on foot, catechizing children. She also set-up a Catholic school and began a community of Third Order Franciscan women. Adele’s father built a small chapel at the site of the apparition, in Champion, Wisconsin. There many pilgrims experienced conversions and healings. Eventually, a larger Shrine was constructed.
An amazing miracle took place at the Shrine. On October 8, 1871 the deadliest wildfire in history occurred. Called the Peshtigo fire, it consumed areas of northeastern Wisconsin, burning 1,200,000 acres of land and claiming the lives of 1,500-2,5000 people. Many people flocked to the Shrine and gathered there with Adele, where they formed a procession and prayed the rosary. Though the fire surrounded them on four sides, it did not cross the perimeter of the Shrine. The Shrine was left undamaged and the faithful gathered there were spared from any harm.
This is the historical context of The Woman in the Trees, which follows protagonist Slainie LaFont and her family, Belgian immigrants who arrived in the United States and settled in Wisconsin. I saw two different themes emerging from the narrative. The first focuses on the concept of motherhood. Slainie has a strained relationship with her mother, who is practical, unaffectionate, and stern. Her mother also nurses a strong animosity toward religion. The narrative follows Slainie’s increasingly broken relationship with her mother, which parallels Slainie’s growing realization that she has a Heavenly Mother who loves her.
She lost faith in some hidden goodness inside her mother. She lost hope that she herself could resist growing into the callous person her mother was. She now believed what had been true all along, that as she listened more and more to Adele she walked toward Mary—and walked away from her earthly mother.
The other theme centers on the harshness of the wilderness and how the immigrants were ill-prepared for it. They arrived in the United States expecting an easier, freer life than the one they previously experienced in Belgium. Yet, quite the opposite occurs.
The cabin where Slainie lived as a child sat in the center of a hard-won clearing. For thousands of years, a forest of conifers and broad-leaved trees had grown unhindered in that spot. Some of those trees were as thick as four feet across. Only Indians had traversed there. In 1853, the Belgian settlers arrived, and with them, Slainie LaFont. In those early pioneering years, the settlers had hacked and sawed unceasingly at the forest.
The Belgians named their settlement Aux Premier Belges (The First Belgians). Slainie and her siblings spent their days doing laundry, milking the cows, feeding the animals, foraging for food in the woods, and digging up roots and preparing the soil for planting. When her mother placed her on laundry duty, Slainie labored for whole days cleaning clothing, collapsing exhausted on her bed after the grueling work. These scenes certainly did not evoke the warm, cozy scenes of Little House in the Big Woods! For many years the Belgians barely survived, turning to wild plants for food and making flour from acorns. For five years they lived alone, in total isolation from any other settlement.
As dire as these physical conditions were, the spiritual condition of the settlers was even worse. They did not know their faith: they buried their deceased without any proper prayers or Christian burial. They did not attend Mass. They suffered greatly, but did not know how to sanctify that suffering. Slainie’s family, in their journey to the United States, endured a personal tragedy, but they had no spiritual tools for processing their pain and finding hope in Christ.
The LaFonts never spoke about their immigration experience—nothing mentioned of the discarded possessions, faring the seas, or the search for land to settle. Slainie dared not speak about leaving Belgium, because of the tragedy that followed. Immigrating and tragedy were one in Slainie’s mind. The first had caused the latter.
Aux Premier Belges gradually developed and flourished, after many difficult years. Yet, in the terrible Peshtigo fire, everything they worked so hard to accomplish and build vanished in an instant.
Still to the west, the front row of trees stood calmly as if nothing was wrong. When the fire reached them they ignited with energetic bursts of flame. The leaves and needles burned first, right before Slainie’s eyes, so that the last thing she glimpsed of each tree was a black skeleton of branches. It flashed for an instant before each tree disappeared. Nearby barns and houses exploded into flames and burned to nothing in a matter of moments.
It is only the Shrine that withstands the fire: faith is the secure foundation to build upon. Our earthly labor, without a heavenly perspective, may be in vain if not sanctified through faith. Thus the critical need to teach people, young and old, about the hope we hold in Christ. The Woman in the Trees is a beautiful reminder that Our Blessed Mother will take care of our needs—spiritual and physical—whenever we turn to her as children.