By Rex Teodosio
On December 8, 2010, Bishop Ricken gave approval to the 1859 apparitions of Our Lady to Sr. Adele Brise, making these apparitions the first ever to be approved in the United States. An essential part of the approval dealt with the Peshtigo Fire miracle cited by the bishop in his declaration. It is impossible to gauge how incredible this miracle was without understanding the intensity of the Peshtigo Fire of 1871.
Armed with a book called, The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account, by Father Peter Pernin, I and a fellow America Needs Fatima custodian traced the footsteps of the priest as he recounts his amazing experience, his unbelievable survival and his witness of not just one but two Peshtigo Fire miracles.
Father Peter Pernin and His Missions
Father Peter Pernin was the parish priest of the cities of Peshtigo and Marinette, both in Wisconsin, and Cedar River, Michigan. Peshtigo was a small growing community due to a logging company and other enterprises including a factory producing tubs and buckets. The population of Peshtigo was about 2,000 souls. In addition to this population, the work brought in numerous temporary workers.
On October 7, 1871, the day before the fire, Father Pernin was scheduled to go to Cedar River by steamboat which was roughly 25 miles north of Marinette along the shore. It never came. In reality, it did pass by the wharf but owing to the dense smoke about the dock area, the captain decided it was too dangerous to make the stop. It was the first sign of divine intervention since he would have been stranded in Cedar River and perished in the fire with the entire city the following day. He returned to Peshtigo that evening.
The day the fire began was a Sunday and Father Pernin was intent on proceeding to Marinette by horseback to celebrate the Mass as was customary.
The Catholics in Peshtigo argued forcefully that it was too dangerous and he conceded to stay. Much smoke and the sound of crackling continued to be seen and heard from a distance.
Premonition of the Calamity
Up until the early evening of the 8th, Father Pernin did not feel compelled to prepare for a calamity. There was danger in the air and everyone felt it. However, there were monitors assigned to watch over the region for dangers of forest fire. They were entrusted to warn the city of any impending danger. Since no warning had come, Father Pernin felt that everyone’s feelings of dread, including his, were irrational.
He only felt the first premonition of a great danger at around 8:00 in the evening. He was walking with his neighbor on her land when suddenly “some old trunks of trees blaze out though without seeing about them any tokens of cinder or spark, just as if the wind had been a breath of fire, capable of kindling them into a flame by its mere contact.” The wind had been faltering until then, blowing at one moment, abating on the next, then suddenly gusting. Off to the west, they saw “a dense cloud of smoke over-hanging the earth, a vivid red reflection of immense extent, and then suddenly struck on my ear, strangely audible in the preternatural silence reigning around, a distant roaring, yet muffled sound, announcing that the elements were in commotion somewhere.”
Father Pernin made up his mind. A great calamity is coming. It was time to prepare for the worst. Little did he know how providential that decision was.
Preparation for the Calamity
At about half past eight, he freed his horse, judging that it was the best he could do for him. He then dug a six-foot-deep trench and buried his chest, the church’s books and precious belongings in it.
His neighbor, Mrs. Tyler, who was hosting a party, approached him and asked, “Father, do you think there is any danger?” “I do not know,” he replied, “but I have unpleasant presentiments, and feel myself impelled to prepare for trouble.” “But, if a fire breaks out, Father, what are we to do?” “In that case, Madam, seek the river at once.” Mrs. Tyler and her family followed the priest’s instruction and were saved. All of Mrs. Tyler’s party guests, except two, perished.
Father Pernin then turned his attention to saving the Blessed Sacrament. It was shortly past 9:00 and the wind had picked up. The redness in the sky deepened. The roaring sound seemed to be almost upon him. Even when surrounded by grave danger, he never let the Blessed Sacrament out of his mind. “Object of all objects,” Father Pernin wrote, “precious, priceless, especially in the eyes of a priest.” The calamity seemed about to fall on him. In his haste, he dropped the key to the tabernacle. So he decided to take the tabernacle on his hand cart. He exited the church and immediately a strong gust of wind began blowing with the strength of a hurricane clearing away the gate, the planks and fencing from his path. All he had to do now was to make it to the river.
The Struggle to Make It to Safety
The wind was so strong it pushed him against the building across the street. He struggled to stay on his feet. He tripped several times on his way to the river. Once, it was over a mother and a daughter who had succumbed to the fire. Another time, he lost his balance due to the wind. When trying to get back on his feet, he felt a horse nuzzle his shoulder. It was his own horse, trembling from fear. Pull as he might, the horse never budged. It stayed frozen in its spot only to be found some days later devoured by the fire.
He was still a few blocks away from the bridge. “The air was no longer fit to breathe, full as it was of sand, dust, ashes, cinders, sparks, smoke and fire.” The bridge was mess of people fleeing. Those from the east side thought it was safer on the west. Those from the west thought it safe on the east. Each side pushed through the other. There were “a thousand discordant deafening noises” all about: “…the neighing of horses, falling of chimneys, crashing of uprooted trees, roaring and whistling of the wind, crackling of fire as it ran with lightning-like rapidity from house to house.”
Father Pernin noted that all matter of sounds could be heard with the exception of the human voice. “People seemed stricken dumb by terror,” he wrote. “They jostled each other without exchanging look, word, or counsel. The silence of the tomb reigned among the living; nature alone lifted up its voice and spoke.” And spoke it did in a spectacular fashion.
Father Pernin pushed the wagon containing the tabernacle into the river as much as he dared. It was made of wood. It was at high risk of catching fire, but he could not push it deeper in the river. The tabernacle was not waterproof. To submerge it entirely in water would also submerge the Blessed Sacrament. It was the best he could do.
He moved upstream where he awaited his fate. People lined both banks of the river “as far as the eye could see.” They survived the night by being partially immersed in the water and constantly splashing water over their heads.
The Intensity of the Fire
The river where Father Pernin waded was about 400 feet wide. The air was full of flames which darted back and forth across the span of the river all night long. Clothing and quilt, used as coverings, would burst into flames if the people neglected to splash water over them. “The river was bright,” he wrote, “brighter than by day.” It was painful to expose head or hand above the water. He looked around him and “saw nothing but flames; houses, trees, and the air itself were on fire…above my head, as far as the eye could reach into space, alas! Too brilliantly lighted, I saw nothing but immense volumes of flames covering the firmament, clouds driven wildly hither and thither by the fierce power of the tempest.”
Were one to describe the firestorm of hell, this description must necessarily be a point of reference. No adjective best defines this scene other than infernal.
After several hours, as Father Pernin ventured to get out of the water to check the temperature, his shoulders scarcely out of the water, someone shouted, “Father, beware, you are on fire!”
A lady who remained close to him asked, “Father, do you not think this is the end of the world?” “I do not think so,” he replied, “but if other countries are burned as ours seems to have been, the end of the world, at least for us, must be at hand.”
They stood in the cold waters of the river for about five and a half hours.
The aftermath gave more indication of the intensity of the conflagration. Many buildings, including the church, were burned to the ground. When the priest retrieved his vestments, they seemed to have been preserved by the fire. He cleared the dirt around them and tried to lift them up. They came undone. The cloth had been reduced to ash.
Father Pernin himself wrote that the intensity of the fire was such that not only did it burn the trees to the ground, it had burned the very stump of the trees. And, most unbelievable, it burned the very root system of the trees. When he placed his hand in one of these holes on the ground, his hand came away with nothing but ashes.
According to an online science website, the temperature of a bonfire can reach over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. For reference, the melting point for gold is 1,945 degrees. The burning of 1.4 million acres of forest and cyclic hurricane-strength winds must have created the perfect condition to reach at least that temperature, if not more. It is impossible to calculate the total sum of heat produced by the Great Peshtigo Fire. In about twenty-four hours, it burned 1.4 million acres of forest to the ground.
Miracle #1: The Miracle of the Tabernacle
Days later, when the good priest recovered his sight and was well enough to walk around, he returned to Peshtigo to administer to the injured, the dying and the dead. A parishioner approached him and asked; “Father, do you know what has happened to your tabernacle?” “No, what is it?” “Come quickly then, and see. Oh! Father, it is a great miracle!” At the spot where Father Pernin had left the tabernacle, he saw the wagon had fallen to its side. Doubtless it was blown over by the storm. The tabernacle, however, stood on one of the logs floating in the water.
“Everything in the vicinity of this spot had been blackened or charred by the flames: logs, trunks, boxes, nothing had escaped, yet, strange to say, there rose the tabernacle, intact in its snowy whiteness, presenting a wonderful contrast to the grimy blackness of the surrounding objects.”
Father Pernin left the tabernacle there for several days for all to see. It was a testimony of the power of the Blessed Sacrament. Exposed to heat that could melt metal, this wooden tabernacle stood untouched by the infernal flames, preserved in its immaculate whiteness. Numbers came and saw. “The Catholics generally regarded the fact as a miracle, and it was spoken of near and far, attracting great attention,” he wrote.
The tabernacle can be found today either at St. Mary’s Church or in the Fire Museum in Peshtigo.
Miracle #2: The Miracle of the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help
Weeks after the fire, Father Pernin heard of an incredible account of a shrine which had been preserved from the fire. He had seen what devastation the fire had wrought in Peshtigo. It seemed improbable that a chapel, a schoolhouse and the property found in the middle of the forest could survive such a firestorm. He decided to visit it himself and see with his own eyes. This eyewitness account was written in his other book titled, The Finger of God Is There!
In 1859, Our Lady appeared to a young girl, Adele Brise (pronounced like “ice”). Her confessor counseled her to heed the apparition’s request which was to catechize children so they will know their faith and avoid punishment. There was also a call to conversion for sinners.
The girl grew to be a nun. Sister Adele suffered much persecution, but she obeyed Our Lady’s request and opened a chapel and schoolhouse on a six-acre piece of land donated for this purpose. It was the very site of Our Lady’s apparition. Twelve years later, the Peshtigo Fire threatened this small parcel of land dedicated to Our Lady. Surely, the inhabitants saw the same red glow Father Pernin described in his account. Surely, they heard the same noise that seemed like the roar of a thousand angry dragons. Surely, they felt the same premonition and the same decision to prepare for the worst. So they did. Many families took what belongings they could carry, what livestock they could drive, and went to the shrine.
It seems irrational to seek refuge from a forest fire in a wooden chapel. It seems more rational to flee, as the survivors in Peshtigo had done, to the closest body of water. After all, the waters of the bay were only 3.5 miles away. Perhaps it wasn’t physical safety they sought, but supernatural. There the faithful were on the late evening of October 8, 1871, pressing upon three simple nuns the duty to protect them from the impending calamity.
The nuns placed their trust in Our Lady. They put a statue of Our Lady on a carrier. They processed around the property praying the rosary out loud. They did not stay in the chapel. They prayed outside to confront the very danger where it threatened them. When the fire, heat and smoke became so oppressive on one side of the property, they moved to another. Despite the danger and their fear, they refused to stop praying the rosary. After hours of praying, confronting the conflagration, suddenly a downpour of rain came and doused the fire. Thus ended the Great Peshtigo Fire, the deadliest fire in American history.
This happened on the morning of October 9th, the very anniversary of Our Lady’s third apparition to Sister Adele Brise.
Father Pernin wrote in The Finger of God Is There!, “Morning's light revealed the deplorable ravages wrought by the conflagration. All the houses and fences in the neighborhood had been burned, with the exception of the school, the chapel and fence surrounding the six acres of land consecrated to the Blessed Virgin. This paling had been charred in several places, but the fire, as if it had been a sentient being, whilst consuming everything in the vicinity, the winding path surrounding the enclosure being only eight or ten feet wide, had respected this spot, sanctified by the visible presence of the Mother of God, and, it now shone cut, like an emerald island in a sea of ashes.”
With this retelling, the words of Bishop Ricken in pronouncing the authenticity of the apparitions of Our Lady of Good Help may gain new significance to many. He said: “Our Lady has lessened or relieved the burdens of the People of God, whether about financial, familial, relationship or employment matters or even through diminishing inclement and tempestuous weather. This holy place was preserved from the infamous Peshtigo Fire of 1871, when many of the faithful gathered here with Adele and prayed through the intercession of Our Lady of Good Help, with the result that the fire that devastated everything in its wake in this entire area stopped when it reached the parameters of the Shrine.” [Accents ours]
2018: Two Fatima Custodians Retrace the Footsteps of Father Pernin
Matthew Shibler, a fellow America Needs Fatima custodian, and I read Father Pernin’s book with focused interest. We compared notes and discussed conclusions. To the best of our abilities we retraced the footsteps of Father Peter Pernin.
It was partially an adventure to discover where Father Pernin’s church had been and where he dug the ground to bury his chest, the church’s books and precious belongings. We crossed the same bridge he crossed, assessed where he must have stayed in the water, and where he left the wagon with the Blessed Sacrament. We stood at the banks where the Miracle of the Tabernacle may have happened and said a prayer. It was a reminder to us that even at the height of a chastisement, the impossible can happen. All the furies of hell cannot touch the Church symbolized by the tabernacle, which, of course, is understood by Catholics as the tent or abode of God.
We followed his footsteps partially, too, as a pilgrimage. We stood on the grounds where the faithful prayed their rosary procession. This is the ground where the three little nuns armed with nothing but their beads and a statue of Our Lady faced the infernal storm that consumed 1.4 million acres, except for the six-acre property dedicated to Mary.
It was with exciting realization that this may have been the first public square rosary procession in American history, something America Needs Fatima has been honored to promote.
Hope in Face of the Coming Punishment Predicted at Fatima
It was with awe that we prayed in the chapel. Because of the thousands of talks about the message of Fatima Matthew and I had given as custodians these past several decades, the chastisement prophesied by Our Lady of Fatima was very present in our minds.
When this great punishment comes because of mankind’s sins, will we simply seek physical safety or will we turn to Our Lady? Full of confidence and staring down the chastisement, armed with nothing more than our trust and devotion to Mary, we will see her prophesy fulfilled that “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.”