The financial miracle that keeps on giving at Knock
Sarah MacDonald talks to Fr Gibbons, the man who has helped raise €13.4m in three years for a major revamp
Knock is a miracle that keeps giving. In just three years, this small shrine on the periphery of Europe has raised a whopping €13.4m in donations and pledges to finance a much-needed structural and spiritual revamp. Some €11.4m has been used to refurbish the 40-year-old basilica which had become dated and worn.
It now has comfortable seating, insulation against the western gales, and a massive mosaic depicting the 1879 apparition by the famed Irish artist PJ Lynch. It has also been future-proofed for technology for the decades ahead. And €1m has also been spent on marketing the Marian shrine at home and abroad, resulting in the first transatlantic pilgrimages from New York and Boston, in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
Another million has been spent on a series of new pastoral programmes as part of Knock's outreach to the faithful in the 21st century. All of this formed the umbrella Witness to Hope renewal programme which was launched in 2014 and draws to a close at the end the year.
The brains behind this massive undertaking is 48-year-old Father Richard Gibbons, rector of Knock shrine. He hopes to have secured another €750,000 by the end of the year, which will mean the target figure of €14m set in 2013 will have been achieved.
The Louisburgh-native's quietly determined vision and drive has caused some to liken him to his predecessor, Monsignor James Horan, the charismatic parish priest who defied political and media scepticism in the 1980s and got an international airport up and running in what was then a rural backwater.
Knock Airport, or Ireland West Airport as it is now officially known, today employs more than 100 people and is in healthier shape than many other airports.
Knock shrine is another major employer in this region, providing work for 100 full-time staff. During the busy summer novena and pilgrimage season, that number swells to 170. Many hard-pressed students have, down the years, benefited from these temporary employment opportunities to fund their college expenses.
Salaries are paid out of the monies generated from the day-to-day operation of the shrine through Mass cards, Mass collections and donations. These costs are entirely separate to the 'Witness to Hope' programme. Everything, Fr Gibbons stresses, is carefully accounted for.
"We need everything to pay for itself and people need clarity that if they are donating to Witness to Hope, that it goes to Witness to Hope."
Knock's significant financial contribution to the local economy and to many local families is probably one of the reasons why the fundraising campaign has been supported so strongly locally. According to Fr Gibbons, roughly 75pc of the €13.4m collected so far has come from the West of Ireland.
"It is incredible. People see the benefit of Knock for the region. Knock shrine and the airport have been at the heart of the development of the west."
He is fulsome in his praise of the generosity of the people of Knock village, with a population of just 972, which raised over €500,000 for its holy site. "This small rural parish was outstanding," he enthuses.
The rest of the donations have come from Irish emigrants in Britain, the US and the faithful around Ireland, as well as dioceses, clergy, religious orders and all the bishops. He admits people thought he was "a little bit crazy" when he set 2017 as the deadline for €14m target.
There must have been many sleepless nights? "Yes - quite a few! It was not plain sailing, especially when we were in the middle of it. But I'm convinced that Our Lady played a part..."
But why would he have embarked on this when the Church was grappling with the fallout of the abuse scandals and the economy was still in the doldrums after the financial collapse? "That was the time to do it because we needed to give the Church here a bit of a boost. Knock has a role to play if we are ever going to renew the Church in Ireland. It was time to give people hope." Hence the title 'Witness to Hope'.
But there will be no resting on laurels for Fr Gibbons and his team. "We are not taking the foot off the pedal yet. There is still the remaining €750,000 to collect before the end of the year. Then there is the World Meeting of Families next year which we need to be prepared for." It might all seem like a bit of a headache but no doubt the novena numbers, which continue to hold up at 100,000, must give him some satisfaction. "People love Knock," he states simply.
Perhaps it's time to recognise the miracle that is Knock.