Virgin Mary Appeared Here
Catholicism has been around since St. Peter became a rock, and, honestly, a lot of really good Catholic waypoints are somewhere other than the New World. Oh, sure, America has its sacred sand pit and its huge crucifixes and a miracle tortilla (at least until it was dropped and crumbled). There's even a giant snowshoe priest. But your Vatican, your Canterbury, your Lourdes are all on the other side of an ocean. It's enough to make you wonder if America has been short-changed of the miraculous.
And then you visit the Queen of the Holy Rosary Mediatrix of Peace Shrine in Necedah, Wisconsin. And you realize that we have the most popular celestial hangout on the planet.
Mary, Mother of God, came to Necedah in 1950. She visited because it was the home of Mary Ann Van Hoof. We know this because Mary Ann Van Hoof told the world all about it.
Mary Ann was a 39-year-old farm wife with a 4th grade education and at least seven kids. The Mother of God appeared in a blue mist in a clump of trees outside of her screen door, and gave Mary Ann dire warnings about the health of Pope Pius XII. She told her that the U.S. would soon suffer "divine chastisement" from the godless Soviets. She told Mary Ann to expect another visit on August 15.
Mary Ann spread the word of "Vision Day" through the radio and newspapers. She said that a miracle would occur at noon -- similar to the one that had dazzled thousands at Fatima in 1917. On August 15 over 100,000 people crowded onto the small, sandy Van Hoof dairy farm. At the appointed hour Mary Ann opened her screen door, strode to the clump of trees, and told the multitude to look at the sun. And the multitude saw -- nothing. This was bad PR for the Mother of God, whose subsequent visits to Mary Ann suffered from drastically reduced attendance. Pope Pius XII did not die (at least not until 1958). America kept sinning, unchastised. And no one saw or heard Mary except for Mary Ann.
Nevertheless, a group of supporters stood by Mrs. Van Hoof. The Catholic Church told them to go back to their priests. They didn't. They were excommunicated. They then turned the Van Hoof farm into a Catholic shrine -- a schismatic Catholic shrine -- which still stands as a working attraction today. It's a quiet place, outside of town, with trees and rock grottoes that give little hint of the controversy that still surrounds it. Mary Ann continued to be visited by Mary, as well as by angels, saints, and even Jesus himself, all of them invisible and inaudible to anyone but her. They gave Mary Ann specific instructions of what to build at the site.
Mary, for example, was a stickler for modesty. Cautionary signs at the shrine forbid entry to women wearing halter tops, tank tops, low-cut blouses, shorts, or "tight-fitting" slacks or jeans. Pastel blouses and below-the-knee skirts are loaned at the entrance at no charge.
The Archangel Michael visited in 1968 and told Mary Ann how to design his grotto. It features a depiction of a kneeling family (and cocker spaniel) praying to a statue of Jesus set on a fireplace mantel. Behind them, Michael uses a spear to pin a frustrated-looking Devil to a pile of rocks in the middle of the living room. On the other side of the fireplace, the cheery home has been replaced by a huge mushroom cloud from a nuclear fireball. "The Choice Is Yours," reads an ominous sign in large letters suspended above it all.
Most of the shrines-within-the-shrine at Necedah are arranged along a circular path behind the gift shop. One of the more photogenic is "God and Country," where Jesus stands on a cloud atop a mini-earth flanked by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The shrine brochure explains that Mary Ann was visited by Joan of Arc in 1957, and that Joan told Mary Ann that she helped George Washington win the Revolutionary War and Abraham Lincoln win the Civil War. Flags fly at half staff behind George, Jesus, and Abe, not to honor the war dead, but in memory of America's aborted fetuses.
Behind the flags are the cinder block half-walls and rusting rebar of the House of Prayer, a 2000-seat basilica that Mary told Mary Ann to build back in 1950. The snail's pace progress on this far-from-finished marvel may at first seem disheartening. But all of the labor here is voluntary, and the great cathedrals in Europe often took hundreds of years to build. When this one is complete, Mary promised, it will be staffed 24-7 by two invisible saints.
Outside of the nave of the House of Prayer is the Sacred Spot, the ash tree clump where misty Mary hobnobbed with Mary Ann on many occasions. A statue of Mary at the Spot is enclosed within a glass tube that resembles an over-sized peppermint stick jar or a minimalist space capsule. A sign elsewhere at the shrine notes that Mary stops by every April 7; May 28, 29, 30; June 4 and 16; August 15; October 7; and November 12 -- although it neglects to mention that she is invisible. Mary Ann passed away in 1984, which means that no one can see or hear Mary when she arrives. But still she comes, regular as breakfast.
There are other sights of interest at the shrine: a 24-hour perpetual prayer hut; an extremely bloody crucified Christ whose flailed skin was originally marked by Mary Ann with crayons; a replica of the Van Hoof farmhouse which replaces the original that burned in 1959, an event that Mary Ann attributed to sinister forces. The gift shop is filled with interesting literature and helpful volunteers. "Even though the diocese hasn't recognized us," we were told, "you'd be amazed at the priests that come here on the sly."
Mary often told Mary Ann that She wanted Necedah to be the largest shrine on earth, "much larger than Fatima." This competitive goal has motivated generations of Van Hoof loyalists. They still have a long way to go.