CHAMPION — A few months before his ordination to the priesthood in 2011, Fr. Christopher Klusman made a visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, located 18 miles north of Green Bay. He had heard about the shrine and the Marian apparitions that had taken place there in 1859 and thought it would be fitting to visit and pray.

“I wanted Mary to help me prepare for my ordination,” said Fr. Klusman, associate director of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministry Office for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. “It was so beautiful, I wanted to come back and thank her for supporting me as a priest.”

Fr. Klusman, who was born deaf, got his opportunity on April 21, Good Shepherd Sunday. He and 50 members of the archdiocese’s deaf and hard of hearing community made the 135-mile trip by motor coach to the shrine, where Fr. Klusman celebrated Mass for the group. They were joined by 17 members of the Green Bay Diocese’s deaf and hard of hearing community. The shrine’s two resident priests, Fr. Peter Stryker and Fr. Jewel Aytona, members of the Fathers of Mercy religious order, concelebrated the Mass.

Following Mass, lunch and a tour of the shrine grounds, the group headed to Green Bay to visit a well-known secular shrine, Lambeau Field.

The daylong pilgrimage was sponsored by the Sisters of the Divine Savior through a donation from Fr. Gerald Hauser, a retired priest of the Milwaukee Archdiocese who has been a friend to the deaf community for many years. Sisters of the Divine Savior, also known as Salvatorian Sisters, are an international religious community with their North American Province headquarters in Milwaukee.

According to Lora Rosenbaum, director of mission advancement for the province, Fr. Hauser has had a long friendship with the Salvatorian Sisters ever since he and Sr. Susan Staff worked together at Saint Francis Seminary. Fr. Hauser offered to underwrite the cost of this shrine pilgrimage in tribute to his longtime friend, Alvin Deinlein, a member of the Catholic deaf community who died in fall 2011.

“Fr. Hauser sponsored our first trip to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help two years ago,” said Rosenbaum. “Then last fall he had the idea to share the pilgrimage experience with the deaf community.”

The pilgrimage to the shrine – where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to Adele Brise three times, asking the young Belgian immigrant to instruct local children about their faith – also served as an opportunity for the Milwaukee and Green Bay deaf and hard of hearing communities to establish ties.

Terri Matenaer, coordinator of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministry Office, extended an invitation to Green Bay’s deaf community and they gladly accepted.  

“This gives us an opportunity to connect with other deaf Catholics in Milwaukee, but also to have the experience of another signing priest,” said Marie Heidemann, a member of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Green Bay, home to the diocese’s deaf and hard of hearing community. Their pastor, Sacred Heart Fr. Guy Blair, fluent in American Sign Language, accepted another assignment in South Dakota in 2010.

“We were blessed to have Fr. Blair and were really sad when he left,” said Heidemann. “Fr. Blair and Fr. Chris are two of 14 signing priests in the whole country. … It’s hard for us to get down to Milwaukee, so this is a good way to get the two groups together to celebrate.”

Fr. Klusman said he looks forward to building bonds between Green Bay and Milwaukee’s deaf communities.

“We are brothers and sisters, so it’s a nice way for all of us to get together and to inspire each other and support each other and celebrate our beautiful faith,” he said through an interpreter. “We want to do a lot more. This is a start of a series. We have a lot of ideas. We are very excited to see what’s going to happen in the future.”

Fr. Klusman also hopes the pilgrimage to Our Lady of Good Help Shrine was as inspiring for the Milwaukee group as it was for him on his first visit.

“I pray that they remember this place when they experience suffering and joy and that it will help them become strong believers in their faith,” he said.