Revamped Knock hopes for millions of new pilgrims
Cardinal Tim Dolan flies over to see shrine's multimillion euro makeover.
In the early hours of tomorrow morning, when most of you are turning over in your beds, around 180 pilgrims will be boarding the first-ever chartered transatlantic flight from JFK airport in New York to Ireland West Airport in Knock - and I will be among them.
On board the Aer Lingus flight will be Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, and he will open Knock's National Novena next Friday when it's expected up to 150,000 pilgrims will flock to the Mayo village to pray over the nine-days.
Make no mistake, this flight is a coup for Ireland West Airport and the shrine, which welcomes 1.6 million visitors each year, and comes at the right time.
Since October, the interior of the shrine's basilica has been totally revamped at a cost that runs into millions of euro. Every nook and cranny, seat and inch of floor has been carefully replaced and restored.
This week, before heading for the Big Apple, I visited Knock to see for myself the extraordinary renovation work. Once built to be functional, a concrete enclave to shelter people from the west of Ireland rain, it now enters the category of lavish.
"The basilica hadn't been changed since 1976 and while it served its purpose over the years, it had become tired and jaded. We didn't want a piecemeal job, we had to do it all together. You'd end up paying more doing it bit by bit and people would be asking when will it ever be finished?," says Fr Richard Gibbons, the Rector at Knock. The only aspect of the basilica to have remained largely untouched is the altar.
It's hoped the massive cost of the refurbishment will be paid for in full by 2017 and the funding for the project comes via individual and business donations.
Glass-artist Róisín de Buitléar hand crafted panels leading into the centre of the basilica to depict the idea of pilgrimage and once inside, the enormous scale of the renovation project becomes jaw-droppingly apparent.
"We installed 3,700 carved seats made of ash, each one has a percussion element to make sure they make no noise when someone gets up," says Fr Richard.
"Every piece of concrete is covered and now clad with granite and oak. All the covering is perforated for acoustic purposes. We've installed brand new lighting, flooring, a speaker system and insulated the whole basilica. There are miles of wiring, television and live streaming capabilities. There's a brand new choir area which can facilitate a little chamber orchestra and our old Blessed Sacrament chapel within the basilica has been renovated to give more of a catacomb feel."
The place of prayer even smells new and the first major celebration to be held here will be by the visiting Cardinal Dolan tomorrow when RTÉ's TV cameras will broadcast live from the basilica.
So high-tech are the renovations that at the push of a button a section of the steps leading up to the central altar actually recedes like an accordion and a lift emerges so that those in wheelchairs have easy access - "I joked with the archbishop that when the lift emerges it's accompanied by dry ice," says Fr Richard.
Key to the branding and promotion of the shrine is its motif. And on the altar, an elaborate marble mosaic designed by artist PJ Lynch and made by world-renowned Venetian mosaic experts Travisanutto can be found.
On a huge blank wall, where once a tapestry hung, the Italian company will place one of Europe's largest mosaics with its unveiling pencilled in for next February. "It's very exciting and the depiction will include the 15 witnesses to the apparition," explains Fr Richard.
Determined to grow visitor numbers to Knock to around three million per year, those behind the renovations here say their project, labelled 'Witness to Hope' focuses on the renewal of the shrine, enhancing the offering and promoting it as an international pilgrimage site.
And when our flight touches down at Ireland West Airport tomorrow morning, amid much fanfare, it's expected the Taoiseach himself will be on the tarmac to welcome the visitors from across the Atlantic. Enda knows that, as an election looms, any friend of Knock is a friend of the Mayo people.
"This is an amazing opportunity for us," explains Fr Richard. "We hope to see regular transatlantic commercial flights operated by Aer Lingus during the pilgrimage season. Knock is the world's only eucharistic shrine and once promoted around the world, we hope the people will come here in much bigger numbers."
And for local people like Sheia Waldron, who runs the Golden Rose religious souvenirs shop across the road from the Shrine, the promise of an influx of American pilgrims is hugely exciting.
"It's like a new beginning. The flight from New York will help promote us further and we need that. In a way, the balancing act is to attract even more people while at the same time maintaining that small village feel… but we'll leave that task to Fr Richard," she said. While Mass attendances have fallen across Ireland in recent decades, the numbers visiting Knock have remained consistently high. It carries out 4,000 confessions a week. And now, 30 years after moving statue mania swept Ireland, Fr Gibbons says: "We're bigger than Guinness in terms of visitor numbers but receive very little promotional assistance from the tourist agencies."
Fr Richard explains how they calculate numbers: "The figure of 1.6 million is calculated on the number of (Communion) hosts that are given out each year. It's based on a complex Lourdes system.
"For example, many come but don't receive and others will have Holy Communion more than once a year, so it's an overall approximation and in line with how those in Lourdes and Fatima calculate their attendance figures."
I ask Fr Richard how such a huge level of investment can be justified at one single location when smaller churches and parishes across the country are struggling.
"This is the national shrine and so needs to be maintained and renewed. The renewal here can spread across the country and benefit every parish," he says.
Pilgrimage is still big business then and once flight EI 4102 comes into view in the skies off the West of Ireland tomorrow morning a new chapter will have dawned for Knock Shrine - potentially a very lucrative and long-lasting dawn.