The faithful and the curious wore their church clothes – hats and suits and heels — as they picked their way across a Wisconsin field on a summer Tuesday.
Nearly 70 years ago this month, an estimated 100,000 people converged on a farm in Necedah, where a 41-year-old mother of eight promised that the Virgin Mary would appear.
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Mary Ann Van Hoof, who lived on the farm, claimed Jesus’ mother had visited her six times over several months. The Virgin Mary was poised to appear again on Aug. 15, 1950, Van Hoof said.
People arrived in central Wisconsin by car (17,000), charter buses (102), and on six special “pilgrim” trains from Chicago, Pittsburgh and other faraway cities, Life magazine reported. Some “were fanatics, but of whom most were level-headed citizens.”
Aug. 15 is the day Catholics observe the Feast of the Assumption — the church belief that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven by God “after her early life.” It was declared infallible dogma by Pope Pius XII later in 1950, though he left open the matter of whether Mary ever died.
Just before noon, Van Hoof stepped out of her house and knelt before a statue of Mary. “The crowd was hushed,” the New York Times reported. Then she stood before a microphone and shared the Virgin Mary’s latest “revelation.”
“You must pray and pray hard,” Van Hoof said. “You must do penance and sacrifice daily. . . . The enemy of God is all over America.” She issued a warning about Korea and said that “black clouds are coming to America.”
Van Hoof left the scene in tears, the New York Times said.
“Although observers saw nothing unusual,” the Associated Press reported, “the faithful went away satisfied, many of them firmly believing the Virgin had been in their midst.”
It was an era in which Marian apparitions often took on political and apocalyptic overtones. The Cold War loomed. The Soviet Union had detonated its first atomic bomb. And, earlier that year, Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), said communists had infiltrated the State Department.
The Virgin Mary was said to urge prayer, particularly for the conversion of Russia.
“At Necedah, and in her subsequent apparitions in the United States, Mary took on the role of a Cold Warrior, responding to the frightening course of events that had occurred in the aftermath of World War II,” writes Thomas Kselman, professor emeritus at Notre Dame, in a forthcoming essay.
Van Hoof, a Philadelphia native who later moved to Wisconsin, was baptized Catholic but not reared in the church, according to religion scholars. Her mother, a spiritualist, believed the spirits of the dead could communicate with the living.
“Her mother would take her to spiritualist lodges where people would hold seances,” Joseph Laycock, a professor at Texas State University, who has written about Marian apparitions. “In Van Hoof’s later claims, you see a strange blending of Catholic tradition with spiritualism.”
In her 20s, the single mother of one answered an ad for a housekeeper placed in Wisconsin Farmer and Agriculturalist by Godfred “Fred” Van Hoof, a devout Catholic. They married four months later and had seven children. The couple worked as sharecroppers in the Southwest before settling on the 142-acre farm in Necedah.
Van Hoof said the Virgin Mary first appeared to her on Nov. 12, 1949. Her last claim of a public apparition — Oct. 7, 1950 — drew 30,000 people. Among them was Ron Schelfhout, who was 14 years old at the time.
“It was a rainy day, but we didn’t mind,” Schelfhout, 82, of Wisconsin Rapids, told The Washington Post. “I remember listening to the message the Blessed Mother was giving through Mrs. Van Hoof that day: ‘Don’t neglect your children and leave them run wild.’”
He remains true to Van Hoof, whom he described as “a farm woman – just like my aunts.”
The La Crosse Diocese initially held back judgment of Van Hoof, saying it needed time to investigate her claims. But it took a dimmer view as the crowds in Necedah grew, and pilgrims made claims of miracle cures.
In 1951, Van Hoof was ordered to stop spreading pamphlets about her “visions” and to dismantle the shrine, known today as Queen of the Holy Rosary Mediatrix Between God and Man.
She refused. But the following year she agreed to submit to a 10-day medical exam.
Diocese officials condemned Van’s Hoofs claims in 1955. But that didn’t stop her followers. A new diocesan investigation was ordered in 1969, and the claims condemned again the following year.
Still, Van Hoof and her supporters continued. Hundreds of families from around the country uprooted their lives and moved to Necedah to be part of the shrine community. They believed, in time, church officials would change their minds about Van Hoof.
“You have to understand, the church is very slow to approve any apparition,” Mary Bulcher told The Washington Post. She followed her parents from New York to Necedah in the 1960s and remains active at the shrine.
“In the 1970s, bus tours were still coming here – huge tours,” said Susan Kosinski, Necedah’s town clerk. “It used to be a very big deal.”
In 1975, the diocese called the group a cult and placed Van Hoof and several followers under an interdict, meaning they were denied sacraments. Four years later, the bishop declared the group was “no longer affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church,” in part because they used clergy from outside the church, according to diocesan records.
Van Hoof said she continued to receive private revelations from the Virgin Mary until her death in 1984. In her later life, she also claimed visions of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc and others.
“Van Hoof was trying to firmly frame Catholics as American long before Kennedy was elected president,” said Laycock, the Texas religion scholar. “People were saying you can’t be a true American and follow the pope. She was saying Catholics are truly American because they are fighting communists.”
The La Crosse Diocese declined several requests for an interview by The Washington Post, though it provided copies of its pronouncements against Van Hoof. Its website says the bishop is leading a pilgrimage next year to Lourdes, France, where the church says the Virgin Mary repeatedly appeared to a teenager there in 1858.
Despite an abundance of claims of Marian apparitions in the United States, the first church-approved site wasn’t declared until 2010. It’s at a shrine in the Green Bay Diocese, 150 miles northeast of Necedah, where a young woman said Mary appeared to her in 1859.
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