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Brought to heal ... the quest for a miracle at Knock

The Catholic Church has recognised the first official 'cure' at Knock this week, but there have been thousands of reports of healing at the Mayo shrine, including that of a paralysed dentist from Downpatrick, Co Down, who was suddenly able to walk again, writes Sarah MacDonald

Baffling case: Marion Carroll, who is said to have been cured of MS while visiting Knock Shrine in Co Mayo in 1989
Baffling case: Marion Carroll, who is said to have been cured of MS while visiting Knock Shrine in Co Mayo in 1989
The basilica in Knock
A woman prays at the Knock Shrine

By Sarah MacDonald

One hundred and forty years ago, 15 people aged between five and 74 claimed they witnessed a supernatural event in the tiny Co Mayo village of Knock. On August 21, 1879, for two hours in the pouring rain they said they saw a silent apparition of the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, Saint John the Evangelist and the Lamb of God by the south gable of their parish chapel. Despite the driving rain, the gable wall of the little church remained dry.

In the wake of this extraordinary event, claims of miracle cures began to flood in.

A photograph from 1880 of an open-air Mass at the church in Knock shows a large crowd assembled in front of the small rural church. A row of crutches line the apparition wall, abandoned by disabled people who believed they had been healed.

From the very beginning, people felt that the apparition had brought with it the possibility of miraculous cures.

Thus far, although 5,500 testimonies concerning cures have been collected since 1879, the 1989 healing of Marion Carroll - who suffered from multiple sclerosis - this week became the only one to be officially confirmed by the Church as having no medical explanation.

According to Fr Richard Gibbons, rector of the shrine, the very first cure claimed at Knock involved Delia Gordon, a 12-year-old girl and it came only days after the apparition in August 1879. She was completely deaf and suffered frequently with severe pain in one of her ears.

At Mass on the Sunday after the apparition, Delia screamed out in pain. Ushering her daughter outside, the mother took her to the gable wall where the apparition had occurred. Taking a piece of stone from the wall, she made the sign of the cross over her daughter and touched it to Delia's ear. The cure was instantaneous.

According to Fr Gibbons, both Delia and her brother often spoke about her cure, but she did not pursue formal recognition for it. Lack of work forced her to emigrate to America to make a living. "She led a full life there and was buried with the little stone from the gable wall," Fr Gibbons said.

By October 1880, more than 600 people had claimed to have been cured in Knock of ailments such as blindness, deafness, tumours and lameness. All are lodged in the Knock archive, although few have sought any follow-up of their good luck.

When people do seek a more formal investigation, their first port of call is the Knock Medical Bureau, which is currently headed up by Dr Diarmuid Murray, who first came to Knock in 1981 at the invitation of Monsignor James Horan.

Murray found that Knock's medical bureau had lapsed but its services would soon be needed to investigate a case in the mid-1980s - of a dentist from Downpatrick who was paralysed from the waist down and was suddenly able to walk again after he received the anointing of the sick in Knock.

"Suddenly the sensation came back in his lower legs. He gave everybody a fright, particularly his wife, when he got up out of the wheelchair and pushed it out of the basilica," Dr Murray said.

The bureau worked with surgeons, pathologists and a neurosurgeon from the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast and Downpatrick Hospital on the dentist's case, but they hit an obstacle because of the lack of a definitive original diagnosis for the dentist's paralysis. Time passed. In order to determine the right diagnosis, the man, who was by now in his 70s, would have had to undergo a painful bone biopsy.

Murray said a pragmatic approach was taken. "It was decided that we would not subject him to that because he was well and had recovered well; he was enjoying life - so why interfere with him and cause him pain?"

The next major cure the medical bureau dealt with was that of Marion Carroll in September 1989. "It was a very dramatic and very rapid recovery. Various people witnessed Marion, who had been bedridden, literally getting up out of her stretcher and walking."

But again, there was no definitive diagnosis of Carroll's condition. There were no MRI scans back then.

Dr Murray dealt with two eminent physicians in his investigation of Carroll's case. One was the late Professor Ciaran McCarthy, emeritus professor of medicine at University College Galway and a consultant at University College Hospital Galway. The other was Dr Timothy Counihan, a consultant neurologist at Galway University Hospital. The last line from Professor McCarthy's report said: "My feeling is that her improvement is very unlikely to be explained by conventional medical wisdom."

Both the official Church, as Archbishop Michael Neary emphasised last weekend, and the medical profession are "cautious" when dealing with claims of miraculous healing and are slow to make any pronouncement.

Dr Murray brings the critical eye of a medical practitioner to the reality of a shrine which attracts up to one million visitors annually. "Knock is not about miracles - it is about reconciliation," he observes, confirming no further investigations are underway.

Increasingly, there is a recognition that the emphasis in places like Knock should be the healing of the pilgrim's relationships with God, with others, and with themselves, as Archbishop Neary put it last week.

Senator Joan Freeman embodies this more nuanced understanding. As a 16-year-old she visited Knock and the eczema which had dogged her from childhood disappeared.

"As an adult looking back on the experience, I realise that there were lots of other explanations that could be offered for the cure."

But she still believes that miracles can and do happen. "These miracles are not always the spectacular ones dealing with physical health - miracles can be as simple as a solution to some insolvable problem, an answer to an unanswerable question, or a positive result when failure was expected.

"Faith is extraordinary, it can move mountains, it can bring peace and most important of all it can bring hope to a situation that seems hopeless."

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