‘It’s a bit eerie’: Masks and Perspex screens appear at Knock Shrine

People who travel for reduced capacity Mass bitterly disappointed if they do not get in

Visitors to Knock Shrine. Photograph: Conor McKeown

Visitors to Knock Shrine. Photograph: Conor McKeown

 

The parish priest in Knock says Confession is the engine room of the shrine. As he speaks, part of that engine room is blocked off with tape and decorative ropes, as a team of masked volunteers wield disinfectant sprays and wipes to make it safe for the next pilgrim.

Going to Confession at Knock Shrine is, according to Fr Richard Gibbons, an opportunity for many troubled people “with the weight of the world on their shoulders” to talk about their problems.

The 100-acre Catholic pilgrimage site in Co Mayo is “eerily quiet” on a sunny morning this week, according to some regular visitors. But there is a socially distanced queue for Confession outside the Chapel of Reconciliation.

Chapel manager Rita Fallon is supervising a military-style operation, described by Fr Gibbons as akin to a hospital cleansing process. After every Confession, a volunteer sanitises the small, airy room, which is far removed from traditional dark confessional boxes.

Pilgrims have the option of either sitting and chatting to the priest through a clear Perspex screen or kneeling and availing of a discreet curtain to shield them from the priest’s view.

Fr Tom Commins observes as the confessional booth is sanitised in the Chapel of Reconciliation at Knock Shrine. Photograph: Conor McKeown
Fr Tom Commins observes as the confessional booth is sanitised in the Chapel of Reconciliation at Knock Shrine. Photograph: Conor McKeown
Visitor using hand sanitiser on his way into the basilica. Photograph: Conor McKeown
Visitor using hand sanitiser on his way into the basilica. Photograph: Conor McKeown

Fallon wears a visor and says she has been “pleasantly surprised” that 90 per cent of those attending Confession wear masks.

“Some of the priests wear masks, some a visor and some rely on the Perspex screen,” she says. “People are worried and they are watching what we do closely.”

Knock normally gets 1½ million visitors a year, including 150,000 during the nine-day novena in August. There are more than 100 staff, rising to 150 during peak season, and it costs an estimated €7 million annually to run the shrine.

However, Fr Gibbons says that because of the Covid-19 pandemic, this season “is effectively gone” with revenue having “bottomed out”.

Priest on tour

He is unsure what to expect for this year’s novena but concedes it will be a different, lower-key experience. People from as far away as Roscommon town – more than 50km – traditionally walk to Knock on August 15th, with Confession starting at 5am and a dawn Mass at 6am for the early arrivals.

“There will be none of that this year,” says Fr Gibbons, who during lockdown visited the 1,000 homes in the parish, blessing every house and greeting his neighbours, many of them cocooning.

Knock Museum and Knock House Hotel are closed, as is the famous Apparition chapel, which commemorates the reported sighting by 15 witnesses of Our Lady, St Joseph and St John the Evangelist in 1879.

Until next Monday, only 50 people at a time are allowed into the beautifully restored basilica (90 per cent of the €12 million refurbishment cost has been paid for but fundraising is ongoing) . From next week 100 people will be allowed into the basilica at a time. Fr Gibbons realises pilgrims are frustrated given that there is seating there for 3,700 but he says further increases will be staggered for safety reasons.

“There are five different sections, and we have to ensure that each one has a separate entrance and exit route,” says shrine spokeswoman Maria Casey.

There are currently no guided tours, and no golf buggies to transport the frail around the vast complex, while only 50 people at time can attend one of three (down from five) daily Masses in the old parish church.

“We are actually enjoying it. It is very peaceful. There is something about Knock that gives you a sense of hope”

Admission is granted on a first come, first served basis and those who travel long distances can be bitterly disappointed if they don’t get in.

“Most people understand,” says shrine manager John Conroy, who points out that 80 of the 107 permanent staff are now back at work, having been laid off as soon as lockdown started in March. “We do avail of the wage subsidy scheme,” he adds. The gardener team was the first to return.

Empty spaces

Visitors have mixed views about the vast empty spaces where the holy water taps – which visitors are advised to use their own sanitisers to clean – are frequently idle.

“It’s a bit eerie,” says Joe Reilly from Ballygar, Co Galway.

“It’s like a ghost town over there,” agrees his wife, Ger, nodding towards the basilica.

“We are actually enjoying it. It is very peaceful. There is something about Knock that gives you a sense of hope,” says Joe.

Visitors wearing face masks at Knock Shrine, Co Mayo. Photograph: Conor McKeown
Visitors wearing face masks at Knock Shrine, Co Mayo. Photograph: Conor McKeown
A visitor at Knock Shrine in Co Mayo. Photograph: Conor McKeown
A visitor at Knock Shrine in Co Mayo. Photograph: Conor McKeown

He says the couple miss some of the regular Knock rituals such as being able to touch a mounted square of the original gable wall, the reputed scene of the apparition. A notice urges pilgrims “in view of the current Covid situation” to refrain from touching the gable stone, but the plea goes ignored by some visitors who cannot resist placing their hands on the square.

Healthcare workers William Guinan and Betty Hynes from Birr, Co Offaly, say they have come to Knock to give thanks for having got through the pandemic safely.

Guinan, who has three holy water containers to fill, is a care assistant at Eliza Lodge nursing home in Banagher and is proud that none of the residents have contracted the virus. “Nursing homes have got a bad rap,” he says.

Raymond Heneghan, whose family run Knock post office, says numbers are dramatically down .

“It has been strange and eerie to see the place practically deserted, but in a way the peacefulness has been nice for people in the community,” he says.

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