In 2005, a battle was brewing. A battle for souls! A battle for decency! A battle for Morality over Immorality!
In the summer of 2004, Fr. Richard Heilman 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. The little town of Pine Bluff has one church, two bars, 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.
So it was that just months after Fr. Heilman’s arrival in Pine Bluff, one of the bar owners decided to rent out his cozy establishment to a strip club owner. Neighbors were appalled, and the little town was stunned. But there was not, it seemed much that anyone could do.
The folks in Pine Bluff, however, hardly knew their new priest, Fr. Heilman. Little did they know the big plans he was formulating. Discerning God’s will, Father Heilman organized a mile-long Stations of the Cross through the town. He 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.
The inaugural prayer walk was on Palm Sunday 2005. Over two-hundred people spilled into the little town of Pine Bluff to participate in the miracle mile. Pine Bluff residents had prepared for the prayer walk by placing two-foot-high crosses in their lawns 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 as a prayer form, much like lighting a vigil candle.
After that first prayer walk, a container holding prayer sheets and ribbons was placed 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 six months, prayer warriors walked the path, prayed the Stations, and sang hymns nearly round the clock. “This is holy ground, we’re standing on holy ground…” they sang. 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 600-700 ribbons were tied onto the cemetery kneeler over that period of time.
The miracle mile was, indeed, miraculous. Even though many say that the porn industry is more protected (under First Amendment rights) than are the babies in our mothers’ wombs, within six months the strip club was chased out of town. Little Pine Bluff was overjoyed, and a victory was won for Our Lord.
Seeing that the power of prayer moved a very significant mountain, a seed was planted and a lion was awakened. Recall that this year of 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 Fr. Heilman 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. To this day, after their First Friday evenings of prayer and training, the Knights of Divine Mercy walk across the street for a fish fry social at the now-wholesome, family-friendly sports tavern where the strip club once existed, quite literally “reclaiming surrendered ground.”