Pine Bluff’s Amazing Miracle Mile
In the summer of 2004, I was assigned as pastor of two parishes, one of which was St. Mary’s of Pine Bluff, a Catholic parish in a small unincorporated town in southern Wisconsin, just a couple of miles west of Madison, WI. The little town of Pine Bluff has one church, a couple of bars, a baseball field and a handful of homes. It is surrounded by fields and idyllic countryside. It’s the kind of town where people dream of raising their kids.
Just as I was getting acclimated to my new assignment, the devil decided to move in. On February 11, 2005, just two days after Ash Wednesday and the beginning of my first Lent in this parish, I was driving down the street and noticed a new name out in front of one of the bars. It turned out the owner decided to rent out his place to a strip club owner. I couldn’t believe it. This was just a stone’s throw from this beautiful St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Neighbors were appalled, and the little town was stunned. But there was not, it seemed, much that anyone could do.
Shortly after this, I was lying bed, conversing with God … “So, what did you have in mind assigning me to a church with a strip club down the street?” I heard back (not audibly), “I’ll tell you what you need to do.” “What?”, I said. Then I heard “Miracle Mile.” As I heard this, I envisioned a trek that began in front of my church and went down the street to the corner where the strip club was, then back up the street to our church, and up into the cemetery behind the church where there was a life size crucifix of our Lord.
This came to me so strong, that I couldn’t wait until morning to see if this was, in fact, a one mile long trek. So, like an idiot, I got up and got dressed – it was about 3:00 AM – and I went down to my car and reset the odometer to zero, and drove the trek I had envisioned in my mind. I went down the street and back, and up into the cemetery and, as I got to the life size crucifix, the odometer rolled to exactly one mile. So, I knew God wanted me to do something with that one mile trek.
I pulled together a group of parishioners – who wouldn’t think I was a lunatic, telling them about my talk with God and 3:00 AM ride – and we discerned together that we should do the Stations of the Cross along that mile. Parishioners prepared for the prayer walk by placing two-foot-high crosses in the lawns of Pine Bluff residents, with their permission, stretching all the way down the main road and back, the length of the miracle mile. Participants carried their prayer sheets and a white ribbon (a symbol of purity and anti-pornography). The twelfth station found them at the entrance to the beautiful parish cemetery on a bluff with a life-size crucifix of our Lord and a one-hundred-year-old stone kneeler in front. The participants tied their white ribbons to this kneeler (pictured here) as a prayer form, much like lighting a vigil candle in church.
We scheduled the inaugural prayer walk for March 20, Palm Sunday 2005. I invited everyone—parishioners, townsfolk, people from the wider diocese—to pray along this “miracle mile,” in an effort to reclaim this surrendered ground and to consecrate the soil back to Our Lord. Over two-hundred people spilled into the little town of Pine Bluff to participate in the miracle mile.
After that first prayer walk, a container holding prayer sheets and ribbons was placed out in front of church at the first station on the walk. All were invited to come, pick up a prayer sheet and white ribbon, and pray at anytime of the day or night, as they wished. Over the next several months, prayer warriors walked the path and prayed the Stations. We saw moms pushing strollers and groups of priests walking and praying together. The white crosses on residents’ lawns served as a very tangible reminder to pray the Stations and to pray for God’s mercy. It was estimated that 700-800 ribbons were tied onto the cemetery kneeler over that period of time.
While I personally walked that miracle mile several times, I was also called to pray in another way, as pastor. From March 20 to October 13 of 2005, I got up very early in the morning and my dog, Angel, and I would drive about 10 miles away to Blue Mounds State Park. Whenever you drive to my parish from Madison, you can see Blue Mounds behind my church in the distance. I loved the name, Blue Mounds, because it was Mary’s color. Also, I could see that it was a kind of “strategic point” for prayer. I made sure I knew when sunrise was scheduled to occur, because I always wanted to be on top of Blue Mounds, praying, as the sun would rise in the east over Madison and my parish. There was a fire tower on the top of Blue Mounds and 64 steps to the top of the tower would give me a panoramic view of the area (pictured here), as the sun peaked up on the horizon … I always made sure I was on top of that fire tower in time to see the first sliver of sunrise.
Since Blue Mounds State Park was in the Mount Horeb, WI area, I was enamored with the scripture account of Moses on top of Mount Horeb, calling upon the power of God to defeat the Amalekites …
The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.” So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning (Exodus 17:8-11).
So, I found a tree branch I used as a staff. And, every morning between March and October, I would ascend to the top of Mt. Horeb, WI, climb the 64 steps of the fire tower atop Blue Mounds, and I would raise my staff just as the sun would peak on the horizon, calling upon the power of God to banish the evil from the area I looked out upon. It is also important to note that one of the most famous witches in the world – Selena Fox – has a compound adjacent to Blue Mounds State Park (see HERE).
Angel and I only missed four mornings on that fire tower during those seven months.
Early in our campaign of prayer, a gruff, elderly Catholic gentleman who, obviously, no longer believed in prayer or the supernatural power of God, spouted off at me, “You can pray all you want, but it is going to come down to the lawyers and judges!” Without blinking an eye, I replied in the kindest tone I could muster, “Yes, I agree, but I want God to bring us just the right lawyer and just the right judge.”
A week later, a lawyer had heard about our plight and contacted us to say that he is an expert on liquor licenses, and he wanted to help. Before we knew it, in May of 2005, the strip club owners had lost their liquor license and were losing business, as they were now trying to run a strip club that only served lemonade. Of course the strip club owners brought it to court to have the decision overturned. The court date would occur on December 15, 2006. The ruling was upheld, and the strip club owners were forced out of business. Little Pine Bluff – like David facing Goliath – was victorious!! We were later told by the lawyer that, by luck of the draw, we ended up with the only judge – in liberal Dane County – that would be sympathetic to Pine Bluff over the strip club owners. In other words, “Just the right lawyer and just the right judge did, in fact, appear for us!!” (You can read the news report here)
Unbeknownst to me, while we were walking and praying during those several months, we were being ridiculed by a popular Madison radio shock jock (I was told this only afterwards that he had been doing this). “For whatever reason” (wink, wink … Thank you, God!), this shock jock “got religion.” He ended up inquiring at a downtown Madison church how to be received into the Catholic Church. He entered their RCIA program. The program director contacted me later to see if I had an empty rectory they could use for a retreat weekend, since I had two parishes. I told her I was already renting out the other rectory, but I’d be willing to go stay at my sister’s, if they wanted to use my rectory. Now, recall, I did not know anything about this shock jock, and I did not know he was in her RCIA program. So, now the guy that was mocking us in public a short while ago, ended up spending the weekend in my rectory (God has such an amazing sense of humor 😉 ). When I got home, Sunday afternoon, after the RCIA group had left, I saw a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream on my kitchen counter, with a note on it that said, “Dear Fr. Rick … I want to say I am sorry, and I think what you are doing here is great! Signed Sly (the shock jock’s name).” By the way, I still have the bottle … I keep it as a kind of trophy 😉
I knew that God wanted something to “rise” from this experience. Seeing that the power of prayer moved a very significant mountain, a seed was planted and a lion was awakened. Calling together twelve devoted men, I asked them to join me for a very necessary campaign. On one evening in 2007, I asked them to load a meeting table into a truck and bring it down to the “former” strip club. I had reserved the room where the strippers “used” to dance. They hauled the four-part meeting table into that room and positioned it under the plate in the ceiling that “used” to connect the stripper pole. The meeting table was “round,” recalling the age-old image of mighty knights who met at a roundtable. I got out the holy water and blessed salt and the prayers of the Church, and reclaimed that surrendered ground back to the Lord, and those twelve men (mighty knights!) sat down and had the “first” planning meeting of the Knights of Divine Mercy. (the photo here is the first group of men knighted as the Knights of Divine Mercy).
2005 was also the year our mercy pope, John Paul the Great, went to be with his merciful Savior, as he passed on the very eve of Divine Mercy Sunday. Pope John Paul II’s love for the Divine Mercy devotion and the inspiration of this faithful remnant in Pine Bluff, who believed and saw their prayers answered, led me to found the very successful Knights of Divine Mercy, an organization calling Catholic men to heroic virtue, to be strong husbands and fathers, and to be spiritual men of prayer. So very needed in our times!
A few years after that battle in Pine Bluff, UW Medical Clinic announced they were about to begin offering late term abortions. Of course, the whole pro-life community got out in front of the clinic to pray every day. This went on for quite some time, and the clinic was still not announcing they had begun that horrendous practice, but we feared that announcement was coming any day. Then a parishioner of mine came up to me and said, “Father, we should do what we did in Pine Bluff … we should do the Stations of the Cross.” I said, “You are right … of course we should.” We asked people to come, and over 200 showed up. We asked the Knights of Divine Mercy to hold images of each Station, and we set it up along the sidewalk in front of the clinic. That day, there was a UW sporting event occurring, so the street was jammed with cars who watched these 200 people genuflect and stand, genuflect and stand, etc., etc. Then only a few days later, the announcement came, “Univ. of Wis. Hospitals confirms it will end late-term abortion program.” Ad majored Dei Gloriam!
What is also interesting is that this decision was reported exactly 4 years, to the day, after the decision in favor of Pine Bluff … both occurred on December 15.
The Knights of Divine Mercy have met every first Friday from September to April since 2007. We have grown and matured and now, besides offering Adoration, Confession, an inspiring talk and fellowship, we are now able to chant solemn Vespers, and we have an amazing Knights of Divine Mercy Schola Cantorum (seen below). The Knights of Divine Mercy are the inspiration for Cardinal Burke’s movement, “The Holy League” (For info go HERE). I highly recommend joining ranks with this incredible holy movement for men. It is especially well-suited for the Knights of Columbus if any chapters are looking for an amazing way for brother knights to pray together (the priest in this video is Fr. Z).