Shrine provides peace for area veterans
As area schools, civic and military organizations celebrated Veterans Day this week, veterans told stories from their military days, expressed gratitude to families and communities for support, and remembered those soldiers who served their country and did not return home.
One of the most dramatic of these stories was told at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion last weekend, when Kewaunee veteran Donald Verdegan and his wife, Mary, attended the dedication of the statue of St. Michael the Archangel in memory of World War II veteran Edwin A. Gerlikowski, Lieutenant 42nd Infantry (Rainbow) Division.
For Verdegan, who has volunteered at the shrine for the last five years, the tribute to a World War II veteran was particularly meaningful as four of his brothers served in World War II, including his brother Larry, who now lives at the Paradise assisted living center in Kewaunee.
Larry worked on a Navy hospital boat that brought injured soldiers back from the Pacific. Donald, who was younger, served in the Marine Corps from 1951-1953, training pilots for the Korean War.
All six boys in his family went to Kewaunee High School, and all served in the military. He was one of 12 children.
“My mother survived it all,” he said adding that Holy Rosary Parish, where all of his brothers and sisters attended church and school, was an important support system for the families during World War II. “We didn’t even have a car.”
For the Gerlikowski family of Green Bay, the church also provided comfort. Before leaving to serve in World War II, Edwin asked his mother to go to Mass every Tuesday at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, where many Brown and Kewaunee County families often prayed for loved ones in the military.
His mother did not drive, so she had her 12-year-old daughter, Ellie, drive her every Tuesday, rain or shine.
“You could do that in the 1940s,” said Kathy Hastings of Kewaunee, Ellie’s daughter.
Their mothers’ prayers were answered as both Gerlikowski and the four Verdegan boys survived the war without injury. But it left harsh memories for some of the soldiers.
“My uncle’s letters told of the horrible things he saw at the concentration camps,” Hastings said.
When he returned, he came often to the shrine to find solace through prayer, according to Hastings.
“My family still prays there weekly,” she said.
Gerlikowski received a Bronze Star Medal for saving the life of a fellow officer by carrying him out of a pillbox that had been dynamited. After fierce battles in Würzburg, Schweinfurt and Fürth, Gerlikowski’s unit advanced towards Munich and were informed that they were near the Dachau concentration camp.
Prior to finding the camp, they discovered a railroad track with 30 to 50 boxcars all stacked with emaciated dead bodies. When they finally reached the camp, Gerlikowski was among the first U.S. soldiers into the camp to liberate the more than 30,000 prisoners that had survived.
In his letters home, Gerlikowski vowed to give a major donation to the Our Lady of Good Help shrine if he survived the war. He returned and attended Marquette Law School, working as an attorney in Green Bay for many years. Upon his death, he willed a large donation to the shrine that allowed them to repair their century-old buildings.
The dedication of the statue to him this Veterans Day was a way of honoring his donation, Hastings said.
The shrine is the site of the first and only documented sighting of the Virgin Mary in the United States, known as the Marian apparition. Just outside of Kewaunee County in Champion, more than 100,000 people visit each year, according to Walt Fountain, a spokesperson for the Shrine.
A chapel is dedicated to the 1859 sighting of the “Queen of Heaven,” who appeared to Belgian immigrant girl Adele Brise in Champion and said to her, “Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation.”
“It is a place of peace and prayer,” said Mary Verdegan, Donald’s wife. She said that her Rio Creek family has been attending Mass there since the 1930s.
Verdegan points to an outdoor statue of the Virgin Mary. Below it is a sign that says “Never Forget” commemorating two veteran chaplains – one who died in a Korean prisoner of war camp while administering to soldiers and another who was killed in Vietnam. She said that both are being considered for sainthood by the Catholic church.
“I’m glad our veterans are getting the recognition they deserve,” she said.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press Gazette: Shrine provides peace for area veterans