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This isn't heaven. It's Wisconsin.

The Virgin Mary once visited, and now so do throngs of the faithful

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"Mom," Karen Tipps's 12-year-old son Simon said on a Wednesday afternoon late last year, "our quiet little home isn't gonna be so quiet anymore."

The Tippses' home sits on the grounds of the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help outside Champion, Wisconsin. A winding trip down rural roads leads to the shrine's chapel, the stations of the cross, a grotto, and a crypt where a collection of crutches is amassed—alleged evidence of miracles performed. Upstairs there's a gift shop that sells Catholic paraphernalia: crosses and trinkets, DVD dramatizations of the lives of saints, T-shirts.

Karen Tipps and her husband are the shrine's caretakers—a task that became far more intense after it received a rare designation. On December 8, the Catholic church affirmed the shrine as one of about a dozen sites worldwide—and the first in the U.S.—to have received a visit from the Virgin Mary.

"There's people walking into our house at all times of the day now," says Karen Tipps, who admits feeling "a little bit selfish" about the place that, for 18 years, has been her home.

The shrine expanded its parking lot last year and added a porta-potty to handle the overflow. But "we had a really bad wind and the porta-potty blew over," Tipps says. The shrine is now looking at more sustainable infrastructure improvements. All funding will come through donations. "That's how the shrine has survived all these years," Tipps says. "She"—the blessed virgin—"sends people just when we need them, not before. She makes us worry a little bit, but it's all right."

Mary is said to have appeared out on this flat land in 1859. "A Lady clothed in dazzling white," according to the official decree by bishop of Green Bay Davis Ricken, spoke to a young Belgian immigrant named Adele Brise.

"I am the Queen of Heaven who prays for the conversion of sinners, and I wish you to do the same," Mary is believed to have told Brise. "Gather the children of this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation." Green Bay was then a trading post and "Indian village," according to a 1955 history of the shrine: "[It] was an historic spot which gave much promise as to its possibilities, but little as yet had been actually achieved."

Brise dedicated herself to teaching the catechism to the children of the wild country, and for her part, the Virgin Mary was said to have had a hand in a miracle: locals gathered on the shrine's grounds during the 1871 Peshtigo Fire, a conflagration that started the same day as the Great Chicago Fire but eclipsed it in scale and death toll. All the surrounding areas were burned; the shrine was spared.

Bishop Ricken made the declaration after a years-long investigation by three Mariologists, none of whom visited the site—they sifted through historical records to determine the story's veracity.

Despite having to relinquish some of the quiet to which she'd grown accustomed, Tipps says she's happy for the attention brought on by the affirmation of Mary's visit. And she hopes the renewed interest in Adele Brise will help spread the message for which Brise was used as a holy conduit—the education of children.

"Our children don't know their faith," Tipps says. "They're losing their faith." 

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