When you stumble upon a deeply rooted secret, it’s nearly impossible to keep quiet. And yet, that is exactly what my family did for decades. None of us had the gumption to ask our dad about the bizarre happenings in Wisconsin. We each furtively hoped that he would one day grant us an exclusive tell-all about the time grandfather abandoned the family to become the co-leader of a controversial, anti-communist shrine.
And so, tucking my head and staying low to the ground, I snooped. I know what you’re thinking, of course I was curious! Who wouldn’t be? I found myself peeking beneath the layers of hushed conversations, faded photographs and my grandmother’s casual journal entries in an attempt to learn why my tight-lipped father remained so cautious about those long ago days.
As a college student in the early 90’s, I would frequently come home for a visit lugging dirty clothes and expecting home cooked meals. My mom would fill me in on the town gossip while we folded laundry in piles around the dining room table.
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On one particular visit, my parents went to church. I had come up with some lame excuse not to attend and was left alone to wander the house. I remember sitting in my dad’s recliner – “his chair” as he called it. Whenever he’d catch someone in his seat, he’d say, “who died and left you boss?” It was his funny way of booting us from the most comfortable seat in the house. I sat with my feet hoisted up, surrounded by his magazines, books, letters, pamphlets, documents, old church bulletins – you name it.
Bored, I reached into the side-pocket of the recliner and found an oversized magazine folded back to reveal a worn page. I was immediately taken aback by what I’d discovered. There, on my lap, sat an original LIFE magazine dated August 28, 1950 opened to a vintage article chronicling the “miracle” in Wisconsin. Laid out in black and white photos, I glimpsed an aerial view of several hundred cars, circa the 1940’s, parked in dusty wheat fields. I quickly scanned the other photos, one of a woman selling hundreds of rosaries; another of a group of ladies standing on a hilltop as they prayed to a large crucifix. The glowing cross was back-lit by the sun and the beauty of it burned to my memory. Finally, there was an aerial snapshot capturing the hillside surrounding the Van Hoof home. It reminded me of scenes from Woodstock; mobs of people waiting for a spectacular show – only these fans weren’t smoking pot, half-naked, deliriously happy. No, this somber group stood in prayer and dare I say holy expectation?
I was stunned. Dad had proof, actual documentation from shrine site hidden in the side-pocket of his chair. Proof, to me, that Mary Ann Van Hoof’s vision was a national event and, secondly, that Dad remained, to this day, in tune with our family history. It must plague him. Why else would he keep this old magazine? Had he purposely searched for it? I found myself wondering how many antique shops and magazine bins he’d rummaged through to find a tattered copy.
I was energized as I tucked the magazine back in its hiding place. This was much bigger than we ever imagined. While my dad might not openly discuss Necedah, he certainly hadn’t forgotten the town or what happened there in 1950.
If this is the first time you have read my blog, please check out my other posts where I share writing tips for documenting family stories. Then, keep an eye out for my book: In Wake of a Following.
- Jennifer Swan