Enduring devotion: the Irish immigrant who never forgot Our Lady of Knock

Altar at Knock Shrine of Our Lady of Knock Credit Public Domain CNA The Knock Shrine. Public domain.

"I remember it as well as I do last night." Those were the words of an aged Irish immigrant named John Curry in 1940s New York, who had seen the apparitions at Knock, Ireland when just a boy.

Now, his remains will be re-interred at St. Patrick's Old Cathedral in New York City.

"Like most of the witnesses, John Curry went on to live out his life in a quiet way, never highlighting what he experienced in Knock, unless asked to speak about it," Father Richard Gibbons, rector of Ireland's Our Lady of Knock Shrine, told CNA. "This shows a quiet, humble kind of faith which was characteristic of the Irish people."
"He served Mass everyday right up until before his death and had an unwavering devotion to Our Lady and said that she never refused him anything that he asked for," the priest said.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York will celebrate an 11 a.m. Mass of Thanksgiving May 13, followed by Curry's reburial on the church's grounds in Manhattan.

The apparition took place on the evening of Aug. 21, 1879 in the presence of fifteen men, women, and children, mainly from the village of Knock in County Mayo. They ranged in age from 5 to 74 years old.

Some of the witnesses reported figures that appeared to be the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and St. John at the parish church's gable wall. Amid luminous lights, they saw the figure of a lamb and a cross on an altar.

Curry's older cousin, Patrick Hill, was at the vision too. He placed the young boy on his shoulders so he could see.

In the pouring rain, the witnesses stayed, praying the rosary.

When the Church launched an official inquiry in October 1879, young John Curry's testimony was among the fifteen official witness testimonies. His first account is brief.

"The child says he saw images, beautiful images, the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph," said the document, posted on the Knock shrine's website. "He could state no more than that he saw the fine images and the light, and heard the people talk of them, and went upon the wall to see the nice things and the lights."

Years later, in a 1936 letter to Fr. Dan Corcoran, who was then curate of Knock Parish, Curry said of the event: "I remember it as well as I do last night."

Curry reaffirmed his testimony before a second Church inquiry held in New York in 1937. He described the figures:

"It appeared to me that they were alive, but they didn't speak. One of the women there, Bridget Trench, kissed the Blessed Virgin's feet and tried to put her arms around the feet but there was nothing there but the picture. I saw her do that. The figures were life-size and I will remember them till I go to my grave."

Fr. Gibbons said the apparition took place at a troubled time for Ireland. Land reform efforts had provoked heated controversy and even violence, while scattered famines recalled the fearful times of Ireland's Great Hunger.

This is the background of the traditional prayer: "Our Lady of Knock, Queen of Ireland, you gave hope to your people in a time of distress and comforted them in sorrow."

"Our Lady of Knock was, and continues to be an icon of hope, forgiveness and compassion for all," Fr. Gibbons said, calling the reburial "a wonderful opportunity" to recognize Curry.

"He, like many others at the time, was forced to emigrate in search of work and was unable to travel home again."

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Curry had emigrated to New York in 1897 at the age of 25, then was in London in 1900 before returning to the U.S. in 1911. He worked as railway laborer near Milwaukee, then moved to New York in the 1920s and worked an attendant at the City Hospital on what is now New York's Roosevelt Island.

He never married.

When his health began to decline, he moved to live with the Little Sisters of the Poor on Long Island.

Not until shortly before the second inquiry began did he tell the sisters that he was one of the witnesses to the apparition at Knock.

Late in life, Curry would recount the stories of the apparition and of serving Mass for Archdeacon Bartholomew Cavanaugh, the parish priest of Knock. Just before the apparition began, the priest had completed a series one hundred Masses for the souls in Purgatory whom the Virgin Mary wished to be released.

Curry died in the care of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Manhattan in 1943, aged 69. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Pine Lawn Cemetery in Long Island. Curry's cousin, Patrick Hill, passed away in Boston in 1927 at the age of 60.

The modern-day rector of the shrine, Fr. Gibbons, spoke about Curry's unmarked grave to Cardinal Dolan when the cardinal led a 2015 pilgrimage to Knock.

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Initially, he asked the cardinal to help bless the grave when a gravestone was provided.  The cardinal then offered to bring Curry's remains to St. Patrick's Cathedral. When this proved impossible, the grounds of the historic cathedral was chosen.

Fr. Gibbons said Knock is extremely grateful to the cardinal for his support and encouragement. In an unusual reversal, 130 pilgrims will be flying from Knock to New York City. Their numbers include some of Curry's relatives.

Tom Beirne, a New York resident who is co-chairing the reburial committee, told CNA the reburial means that Curry "will finally get the recognition that he so greatly deserves at this point."

He suggested that the reburial and focus on Our Lady of Knock would increase Marian devotion, combined with the centenary of the Marian apparition known as Our Lady of Fatima.

Beirne said Our Lady of Knock has continuing significance to Irish-Americans. He pointed to the St. Patrick's Day Mass with Cardinal Dolan at St. Patrick's Cathedral, when the singer Cathy Maguire sang "an amazing rendition" of  Dana Rosemary Scallon's song "Our Lady of Knock", which went viral on the internet.

Beirne said that St. Patrick's Old Cathedral is "hugely significant" to the Irish community and the Irish-American Catholic fraternity the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which is assisting in the reburial.

"Archbishop John Hughes, 'Dagger Hughes.' called on the Ancient Order of Hibernians to physically defend St. Patrick's Old Cathedral on a couple of occasions against the planned destruction by Nativists and the 'Know Nothings'," he said.

The group and its counterpart, the Ladies' Ancient Order of Hibernians, host an annual pilgrimage to the Our Lady of Knock Shrine in East Durham, New York.

Today, Knock is the National Marian Shrine of Ireland and hosts the largest pilgrimage in the country. The shrine is surrounded by gardens with five churches.

"Pilgrims often comment on the great sense of peace that they experience here," Fr. Gibbons said.

The National Novena to Our Lady of Knock takes place Aug. 14-22 every year, bringing guest speakers, workshops for pilgrims, and a candlelight rosary procession around the shrine grounds each evening.

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