Nine days of prayer and reflection come to a close tomorrow at the National Novena to Our Lady of Knock as thousands gather to mark 137 years since 15 of the town’s people claimed to have witnessed the apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, John the Evangelist, angels, and Jesus Christ on the church wall.

Taking place from August 14 until August 22, the Novena is an annual gathering of prayer to remember the event in the Co. Mayo town, which has now become an important Roman Catholic pilgrimage site and a national shrine to the Virgin Mary.

On August 21, 1879, Mary McLoughlin, the housekeeper to the parish priest of Knock, was astonished to see the outside south wall of the church bathed in a mysterious light, with three figures standing in front of the wall.

Three stone figures had previously stood but were knocked down by a storm, and, presuming these were simply their replacements, McLoughlin made her way down through a rainy night to her friend Margaret Byrne's house.

While returning home with Byrne’s sister Mary to accompany her, the pair noticed the mysterious light on the church wall again but as they passed by they were taken aback by the figures of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and St. John floating against the wall some two feet above the ground. Witnesses said that Mary was in the forefront and life-sized while St. Joseph and St. John appeared smaller.

Mary Byrne dashed from the site of the apparition to tell others while the housekeeper stayed staring at the vision through the rain. Despite attempts to wake the parish priest Archdeacon Cavanagh, he was unwilling to go out in the rain again, yet still some 15 people, young, old, male and female gathered as the apparition shone through the night for a total of three hours.

“The figures were fully rounded, as if they had a body and life. They did not speak but, as we drew near, they retreated a little towards the wall,” said one witness Patrick Hill, in testimony given to a commission established by the the diocesan Bishop of Tuam once the villagers traveled to the parish priest to inform him of what they had seen the next day.

Two Commissions of Enquiry - one in 1879 and one in 1936 - accepted the testimonies of the 15 as trustworthy, despite claims the apparition was nothing more than a cruel trick played of the townspeople by a Protestant policemen using a light box, which were common at the time.

Despite the cynics, pilgrimages to Knock began as early as 1880 and remarkable miracles were reported by the sick and injured who visited the church. The tradition continues even as Ireland becomes a more secular state and Knock maintains its position as a stronghold of the Catholic religion in Ireland, even drawing the attention of filmmakers curious about its pull as a pilgrimage spot and its ability to maintain its position as a religious town despite the scandals within the church in the past few decades.

Director of of the hugely successful “One Million Dubliners” about Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery, Aoife Kelleher will release “Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village” on August 26 in Ireland. It will tell the story of the Knock shrine in an Ireland where the role of the Church is being questioned.

The Knock Novena ends tomorrow with a performance by the Tuam Cathedral Choir.

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