Village of Knock gets ready for Pope visit
BEDECKED in bunting, flags and tens of thousands of flowers, the small village of Knock in the west of Ireland is quickly preparing for the arrival of Pope Francis.
The excitement has been sweeping across the Co Mayo village since the Pontiff's visit was confirmed in June - and with more than 45,000 people expected to line the streets, the locals have been working around the clock.
Around one-and-a-half million pilgrims visit Knock Shrine every year to see the site where some 15 people witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary, St Joseph and St John the Evangelist in August 1879.
With just days to go before the Papal visit, Knock is bedecked in the Vatican colours and Pope Francis' head appears on flags, posters, coffee mugs and fridge magnets.
The Pope's visit on Sunday will last around 80 minutes and will include a tour around the village and a visit to the Apparition Chapel before he addresses the crowd from a stage.
Fr Richard Gibbons, who has been the parish priest of Knock and rector of Knock Shrine for six years, has been instrumental in the huge planning operation.
From tree cutting, to painting and deciding on water locations, Fr Gibbons described the practicalities of preparing for a Pope visit.
"It has been absolutely hectic since we got notification officially in June," he said.
"Everyone has put in 110% and wanted to help in any way they can.
"We're pretty much ready, there are a few bits and pieces to put in place - but we are getting down to signing off on a lot of things.
"It goes from tree cutting to how many people you have to put in place, to bringing in the pilgrims to water locations, grass cutting and medical locations, security, painting and food, accommodation and parking - there's a plethora of stuff to do.
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"Before the Pope arrives there will be music, song and prayer. Then when he gets to Knock, he will go inside the Apparition Chapel for a private prayer where he will light a candle for families and then he will present gold rosary beads to Our Lady and he will come out and go to the staged area where he will address the crowd.
"After he leaves, we will have the open air mass at the Shrine.
"The excitement is palpable and everyone is getting their place ready and cleaned.
"People are just excited in anticipation of this visit as it means so much to them.
"There's a sense of joyfulness as well.
"No one ever imagines they will be lucky enough to welcome a Pope to the place where they are in charge of.
"I'm honoured and excited myself about it. It's a tremendous honour for anyone to welcome the Holy Father as it recognises the work of the Shrine and we've done a lot of work over the years in terms of renewing the Shrine and refurbishing the Basilica."
Their annual Novena - devotional praying in public and private - ends this week before Knock goes into lockdown while a team spends three days putting the infrastructure in place.
Anne Lavin, head of grounds horticulture department, said that more than 50,000 flowers have been planted around the village ahead of the Pontiff's visit on Sunday.
Dahlias, begonias, lobelias and lavender are among the colourful display of flowers that spill across the church grounds.
Ms Lavin has worked in the Knock Shrine's horticultural team for almost 40 years and was there for the last Papal visit in 1979.
A team of 20 staff have been working around the clock battling the hot sun and heavy rain over the last few weeks.
She said: "The gardening team are a jack of all trades, we pick up the litter, sweeping, tend to the candles, clean the toilets, cut the grass and hedges, we are the dream team.
"The team have all been doing their bit and everyone is putting in extra time.
"We've had crazy heat and now belting rain over the last couple so that takes its own toll.
"It will be amazing to know Pope Francis will see our work."
In August 1879, around 15 people from the village saw a light coming from the parish church and saw the apparition which lasted around two hours.
Each of the witnesses were asked to give a testimony to a commission of enquiry that was set in the months after the apparition.
Maria Casey, head of marketing and communications at the pilgrimage site, said that the witnesses' testimonies will be read out as part of the Papal visit.
She added: "Behind the scenes there is a huge amount of work - from the Liturgy team, gardening team and the choir. Everyone is working really hard.
"It's a huge logistical operation and the pressure is really on."
Tickets for the Pope visit went on sale at 5am and sold out in less than two hours.
The Pontiff will travel through the crowd of 45,000 people in the Popemobile while local parishioners will get first preference of where they will stand.
John Prendergast, a business owner in Knock, has lived in the village all his life.
He proudly shows off a large statue of Pope Francis among his religious merchandise.
He said: "We are all really looking forward to the Pope coming, I'm told he's a man of great, great faith.
"The whole community is very excited about his visit.
"For the past three weeks it's been lots of decorating and flags going up. It's been marvellous.
"There will be lots of security and a number of the roads are closing too.
"There will be tens of thousands of people coming to Knock to see the Pope, it will be extraordinary."