Knock Apparition August 21, 1879
Ireland had experienced the worst of potato crop failure during the “hungry forties,” but some regional crop failure was experienced in the province of Connacht in northwest Ireland during the late 1870’s. Inhabitants in the small village of Cnoc, Gaelic for “hill” named for the surrounding hilly countryside faced a third year of bad crops in 1879. There was little to celebrate at the first fruits harvest festival. The pastor of the village church, Father Bartholomew Cavanaugh, encouraged his parishioners to persevere in their trials. He was a prayerful and fatherly priest. Father Cavanaugh decided to offer 100 Masses for the poor souls in purgatory because he knew their intercession before God is great. Father completed the one hundredth Mass on Thursday, August 21st, 1879 and spent part of the rest of that rainy day on horseback visiting a distant part of the parish.
Mary McLoughlin finished up chores as housekeeper for Father Cavanaugh at about 7:00pm. She stepped out in the damp dusk to walk over to her friend’s house to chat. It was still daylight as she walked past the church and saw some beautiful figures outside the church close to the gable wall. Thinking them to be statues acquired by the pastor, she continued to her friend’s house, yet she was a little puzzled about why they were left out in the rain and why Father Cavanaugh hadn’t mentioned anything about them to her. Mary chatted with her friend, Mary Beirne for about half an hour and then the two walked back past the church. The church was about fifty years old and dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. The south wall of the church was a “gable” wall where it joined the sloping roof sections together at the end of the building. Inside the church against that wall lay the altar and tabernacle. There was an inscription on the outside of the west wall that read, “My house shall be called the House of Prayer to All Nations. This is the gate of the Lord; the just shall enter into it.”
The two Marys were at a distance of about thirty yards from the church and they leaned against a low wall that enclosed the church property to see the figures. The marvelous light surrounding the figures was really beautiful and while they gazed on the whole scene, they noticed movement in the figures and that is when the women realized the figures were not statues! Recognizing one of the figures as the Virgin Mary, Mary Beirne quickly returned to her home to summon her mother, brother, sister, and niece to the scene.
At about 8:00pm, Dominick Beirne roused more villagers to the scene, saying, “Come to the chapel to see the miraculous lights, and the beautiful visions that are to be seen there.” Thirteen-year-old Patrick Hill quickly ran to see with his little brother and others. Patrick came upon the group of witnesses and began to pray with them. Little six-year-old John Curry couldn’t see over the wall, so Patrick lifted him up to see the “grand babies” as he called them. Once over the four-foot wall they moved in closer to the apparition to see better. Patrick’s testimony is the most detailed because of his close proximity to the images and because he beheld the details of the amazing sight for more than an hour.
The eye-witnesses saw, in a living tableau from left to right, Saint Joseph, the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist, and an altar upon which stood a Lamb with a number of angels encircling and revolving around the lamb. Behind the altar was a plain cross. All the figures were suspended about two feet off of the ground and there was movement of the figures, but no words were spoken. Although there was driving rain aimed from a southerly wind into the direction of the gable wall, no rain was falling on the figures in the tableau or upon the ground they were suspended above.
Saint Joseph was described as looking aged with iron-gray hair and a beard. His head was bent forward from his shoulders and inclined showing deference to the Virgin Mary. He wore a white full-length robe that did not cover his feet. The Virgin Mary stood straight with her eyes lifted to heaven. She appeared to be praying. She wore a white robe fastened at the neck that hung in folds about her. Upon her head was a regal gold crown that had sparkling points or crosses at the upper edges of the crown and a distinct golden rose in the front and center where the crown fit on Her head. Her hands were raised to shoulder level, apparently in prayer.
Patrick Hill, told the Commission of Inquiry on October 8th 1879, “I distinctly beheld the Blessed Virgin Mary, life-size, standing about two feet or so above the ground, clothed in white robes which were fastened at the neck. Her hands were raised to the height of the shoulders, as if in prayer, with the palms facing one another but slanting inwards towards the face. The palms were not turned towards the people but facing each other as I have described. She appeared to be praying. Her eyes were turned as I saw towards heaven. She wore a brilliant crown on her head and over the forehead where the crown fitted the brow, a beautiful rose. The crown appeared brilliant and of a golden brightness, of a deeper hue, inclined to a mellow yellow than the striking whiteness of the robes she wore. The upper parts of the crown appeared to be a series of sparkles or glittering crosses.”
Saint John the Evangelist was clothed in the robes of a bishop and wore a miter on his head. He held an open book in his left hand and his right hand was raised to the height of his head and closed except for his index and middle finger, which were extended. It appeared to the witnesses that he was preaching or raising his right hand in blessing, except he spoke no words. When Patrick Hill advanced closer to the figures, he saw lines of writing in the book but couldn’t read them because interestingly, as witnesses drew closer, the figures appeared to recede.
Completing the image was a white altar with a young lamb estimated to be about five weeks old standing on the altar and facing west. A cross stood behind the lamb on the altar. Angels fluttered around the lamb during the entire duration of the apparition. The angels’ heads were facing the lamb and turned away from the witnesses so the faces of the angels could not be described.
Seventy-five-year-old Bridget French also came out to behold the scene. As she took in the apparition, she knelt down and exclaimed, “A hundred thousand thanks to God and to the glorious Virgin that has given us this manifestation.” Bridget then proceeded to walk right up to the Blessed Mother to kiss her feet. Bridget describes, “I felt nothing in the embrace, but the wall, and I wondered why I could not feel with my hands the figures which I had so plainly and so distinctly seen.” Bridget noticed further, “It was raining very heavily at the time, but no rain fell where the figures were. I felt the ground carefully with my hands, and it was perfectly dry.”
At about 8:15 pm Mary McLoughlin left the apparition to notify Father Cavanaugh of the vision. Father Cavanaugh related that Mary McLoughlin burst in exclaiming, “Oh your Reverence, the wonderful and beautiful sight! The Blessed Virgin has appeared up at the chapel with Saint Joseph and Saint John and we have stood looking at them this long time. Oh, the wonderful sight!” Father Cavanaugh interpreted from what Mary said that the apparition was over, but he also didn’t clarify to ask Mary McLoughlin if it was still taking place. He later lamented that moment, saying, “I did not go up, and I have regretted ever since that I omitted to do so. I shall ever feel sorry that a sight of the apparitions has been denied me, but God may will that the testimony to his Blessed Mother’s presence should come from the simple faithful and not through the priests.”
The fifteen witnesses estimate that the tableau was visible for three hours, from 7 pm to 10 pm. Some of the witnesses prayed, some wept, all were in awe. Judith Campbell watched in rapt wonder for most of it and then decided to return home because her mother was sick. Finding that her mother had collapsed at the cottage door, Judith asked for help. Some of the witnesses rushed to help lift the mother into bed and then they hurried back to the church. By then, the apparition had ended and they were met with the familiar darkness and rain hitting the gable wall.
The apparition lifted the thoughts of the people from their trials to comprehend the eternal message in the tableau. Donal Flanagan points out in the book The Meaning of Knock that the presence of St. John among the figures may have been because he was the scripture writer who set down the idea of Christ as the Lamb of God. John 1:29 states, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” John wrote in Revelation Chapter 5 verses 11-14, “I looked again and heard the voices of many angels who surrounded the throne and the living creatures and the elders. They were countless in number, and they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing.’ Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe, cry out: ‘To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever.’ ” One may imagine that if St. John were preaching aloud that memorable night of August 21st, those scripture passages may have been issuing forth from his lips.
After the apparition, Father Cavanaugh recorded more than three hundred cures that were connected with the Knock chapel. He detailed one such cure, “Some little while ago, I received a ‘sick-call’ late at night to a man who was said to be vomiting blood, and in extreme danger. Hastening to the house, attended by a boy with a lantern, I met the father of the patient coming to hurry me, in distress lest I should be too late (to give his son the last rites). On reaching the cottage, I found the young man covered, so to speak, with blood, and apparently very near death, but conscious. After ministering to him, I called for a glass of water, sprinkled on it a few particles of the mortar from the gable wall of the chapel, and bade him to drink. He did so; at once he began to recover, and is now well.”
After ecclesiastical approval, Knock became a popular pilgrimage destination. First a trickle, then a stream, now rivers of pilgrims visit the shrine, as many as one million every year. A local boy who grew up visiting the shrine went on to fame and holiness. The priest, Servant of God Father Patrick Peyton was born and raised close to Knock. He visited the shrine often before he emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 19 and became known as the Rosary Priest. Father Peyton used print, radio and television to spread devotion to reciting the family rosary. He founded the Rosary Crusade and staged hundreds of radio and television programs encouraging recitation of the rosary. Family Theater shows employed Hollywood stars to reenact the mysteries of the rosary. He made famous the statement, “The family that prays together, stays together.” Father Peyton promised, “If families will but listen to my message and give Our Lady ten minutes of their twenty-four hours by reciting the daily Family Rosary, I assure them that their homes will become, by God’s grace, peaceful, prayerful places, little heavens, which God the Author of home life has intended they should be!”
In the centenary anniversary year of the apparition, Pope John Paul II visited Knock to raise a new Church of Our Lady Queen of Ireland to Basilica status. He said Mass in the new Basilica on Sunday, September 30, 1979. He blessed the sick, he prayed an act of consecration of Ireland and the Irish people to Mary, Mother of the Church, and he bestowed a papal Golden Rose to the shrine on that auspicious occasion. A Mary Garden has also been constructed on the grounds of the shrine to encourage contemplation on the mysteries of our faith through flowers.