Monday, October 15, 2012

A Shrine to Imagination

Shrine in Champion, Wisconsin

A reader kindly sent me a clipping of an English news story about a new Catholic shrine in this country.  Apparently, Champion, a small town in northeast Wisconsin, now claims to have the “first ever holy site” in the U.S.  Supposedly, in 1859, the Virgin Mary appeared there three times to a Belgian immigrant named Adele Brise.
“The blessed mother told her to pray for the conversion of sinners, and to educate the children in the ways of the faith, especially preparing for the sacraments," according to the announcement. Brise obeyed and became a teacher.  
She also created the shrine, now known as the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, to pray for various miracles.  
There’s at least a small problem with the breathless announcement.  Champion can’t claim the first anything.  There are at least 57 other Roman Catholic shrines in this country.  I spent a few minutes finding their names on the internet and counting the number on the list.  Most are in small towns.  I assume the Virgin Mary is more comfortable there.  Either that or residents of small towns have a lot of extra time to let their imaginations run wild.
St. Elizabeth Seton Shrine
I actually visited one several years ago during a conference.  The program happened to be held in Maryland coincidentally near the shrine of Elizabeth Seton, the first American woman designated a saint.  Two friends and I stopped by the place, which is in a bucolic setting and appropriately peaceful.  One of my colleagues was Catholic, but he – and I – was appalled to see bits of Seton’s finger bones for sale there.
I don’t know if Champion is going to opt to sell relics like that, but they are commonplace in many personal shrines.  The idea that bones somehow can convey blessings or cause miracles came from the biblical account of a dead man being revived when his body contacted the grave of the prophet Elijah.  The New Testament has people cured by touching Jesus’ clothing, for example.
Since then, relics have been a big deal. 
They are also part of the reason behind shrines.  They draw people, who are willing to spend a lot of money for bits of items associated with the shrine.  I wonder if the Virgin Mary mentioned the financial aspect.  After all, why go Champion, an unincorporated suburb of Green Bay, if not for the shrine? The stream of visitors worshiping at either the shrine or Lambeau Field, home of the Packers, is all that keeps the local economy humming.  
Worshipers at the shrine of the Queen of Peace in Medjugorje
That’s equally true in Bosnia and Herzegovina where thousands stop by to visit the shrine of the Queen of Peace in Medjugorje, home to just 4,000 people.  The Virgin Mary supposedly appeared to six children there first in 1981 and continues monthly visits, although the Roman Catholic Church has not officially accepted the story as true.

That’s all right.  Doubters can stop by Lourdes, where the Virgin reportedly appeared in 1858 to a woman who became St. Bernadette.  There are lots of other places as well, all eager to share in the largesse.
There’s no problem luring believers to such places.  In fact, there never has been.  These are the same type of people who paid priestesses at Delphi or who went to the shrines dedicated to now-forgotten gods of multiple pre-Christian cultures.
Devout Muslims surround the Kaaba.
All of today’s religions have such places.  The Kaaba in Mecca is one for the Muslims, although it precedes the founding of Islam by centuries.  Muhammad actually helped take care of the Kaaba, which is a meteorite turned into an object of worship.  Jews don’t have saints, but they do have the Wailing Wall, a remnant of the second Temple, which has become perhaps the most sacred object of veneration in the ancient religion.
A friend of mine, a Buddhist, happily showed me her in-home shrine, which all Buddhists have.
Shrines are not limited to beliefs.  Such structures as aged Fenway Park in Boston, Wrigley Field in Chicago or the Daytona International Speedway are treated with awe and reverence.  People often have small shrines in their home to movie actors as well as sports stars.
The religious ones supposedly heal people.  I doubt Clemson football players rubbing Howard’s Rock before every home game expect to be cured of their various ailments, but people going to Lourdes or Champion do.
Some are.  Many people are cured by faith healers, too.  Of course, not everyone is. As Elizabath Smith, a visitor to Champion, said in the news article: 'I think it's something you just feel, and if you're open, you'll feel it. If you come here thinking you're not gonna, you won't.”
That’s the catch.  You have to believe.  That’s the basic limitation of any shrine.  Something with a scientific basis will work the same every time or, at least, we’ll understand why it’s inconsistent.  Prayer at a shrine or simply your presence there may or may not do anything.
It’s really mind over matter.  That’s why the shrines invariably feature the wrong object for veneration.  All shrines should honor only one item – the human brain, which is really the only thing capable of generating images of deities and saints.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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