CHAMPION, Wis. (WFRV) – Thousands gathered at a church in the small community of Champion to honor the Virgin Mary in a first-of-its-kind mass.

The National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion hosted the start of an annual tribute to mark what the Catholic church determined were multiple appearances by the mother of Jesus to northeast Wisconsin back in 1859.

The church estimates about 3,500 people, who hail from all across the globe, attended the mass. The celebration is known as a solemnity, as it is one of the highest honors of the Catholic Church.

Among the crowd were more than 40 priests from the Green Bay Diocese, including Father Thomas Reagan, who has been a Chaplain at the church for the last 5 years.

He says, “I love getting to know different people and finding out where people are coming from, not just in terms of geographically but where they are from in terms of getting to know God.”

The day Mary came to Champion, she told Belgian immigrant Adele Briese to spread the Catholic faith to others.

“It was initially a message for her, but it became a message for other people as well, and that message is starting to spread more and more,” Reagan says.

The church will now hold the solemnity every year on October 9.

Director of Communications for Our Lady of Champion Chelsey Hare says, “People are looking for solace and healing, whether that’s a physical healing or spiritual healing. To see so many people here recognizing the special day and going to our Lord and our blessed mother in faith it means the world.”

While the mass may only be once a year, the church says anyone can come to visit the shrine during church hours all year long.