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Helping make the pilgrims' progress more comfortable

With thousands of Northern Ireland pilgrims due to descend on the Co Mayo village this week, a mother and daughter who volunteer as handmaids at the annual novena at Knock tell ­Sarah MacDonald about the ­challenges of the ­ageing membership of the group and keeping their work going

More than 100,000 pilgrims are set to arrive in a small Co Mayo village between August 14 and 22 for the annual novena at Knock shrine, where 15 people reported seeing a divine apparition on a rainy August evening in 1879.

Given the number due to attend this holy jamboree next week, predictions of the demise of Irish Catholicism seem somewhat premature.

Those who haven't attended a novena before are often taken aback by the crowds, and less seasoned pilgrims could easily get lost among the throngs as they mill around the grounds of the shrine, petitioning for a cure or searching for divine intervention in their lives.

In the midst of all these people, one group of women are instantly recognisable, attired in their distinctive white uniforms and accompanying white veils - they are the handmaids. In many ways, they resemble nurses from the 1970s but they are often mistaken for nuns.

Catherine Hynes (56), a mother-of-three, has been a member of the handmaids for the past 13 years.

"If you are standing in the basilica looking for somebody, the white uniform is very distinctive. In a crowd of 10,000, you'll find a handmaid thanks to the uniform," she says.

Catherine's 27-year-old daughter, Ellen, a teacher in London, has been a handmaid since she was 18 and now returns to Knock during the school holidays to continue her involvement with the group which was founded by Dame Judy Coyne, the first Irish papal dame, in August 1935.

"I was always interested in what these women in white were doing," she says. "When I first became a full handmaid, a lot of people would stop me and say, 'You're awfully young to be a nun'.

"A lot of people think we are nuns and ask what order we are. I'm far from being a nun. It is just that people associate a veil with nuns and they automatically presume that because we are in a religious environment here, we have to be nuns."

On occasion, Catherine can't resist pointing out her husband, John, the chief steward at Knock, to the misguided pilgrims. "They are usually kind of shocked, and then they ask me what I'm doing here, and I explain that we are volunteers who come here to help."

The handmaids count nurses, a radio presenter, a dancing teacher, housewives and "almost every profession under the sun" among their membership.

But the mother and daughter duo are concerned that the age profile of the handmaids is getting older, even if Ellen's youth brings down the average age.

"Most of the handmaids would be retired, and so are in their sixties, seventies and eighties."

Many of these ladies travel long distances once a month to fulfil their volunteer duties.

Catherine reveals that there are two gentlemen who travel down on the bus every Sunday from Donegal to volunteer as stewards in the basilica. That is the level of devotion here.

Last year, Knock Shrine Society, the umbrella body which oversees the handmaids and stewards, held its first open election to establish a council, the first the society has had since its foundation in 1935. Catherine was elected secretary.

The council is made up to four handmaids and four stewards as well as the chief handmaid and the chief steward, as well as Knock rector, Fr Richard Gibbons. Decisions must have the backing of a majority of the council. It is an important step as there are big decisions ahead.

"Fr Richard organised a canon lawyer to draw up a constitution which sets out the rules and regulations on uniforms, membership, a grievance process and age limits. There are big changes coming."

A retirement age is likely to be brought in as the role can be demanding physically when it involves helping the wheelchair-bound.

Catherine and Ellen are the only mother and daughter set of handmaids currently, though there are siblings among the 150-strong cohort of women - and even some aunts and nieces, including Ellen's aunt on her father's side. It was poor health that motivated Catherine to first volunteer with the handmaids.

"I was quite ill for a long time. I developed complications following a Caesarean section and I had very bad adhesions and bowel problems. I won't say that I had a miraculous cure because I have great faith in my doctors, but I suppose Our Lady gave me great comfort. I live in constant pain but you just get on with it," says Catherine.

Every year, she has had to spend time in hospital. From the age of four, Ellen and her two brothers were often told to 'be careful of mammy's tummy'. Family prayers always included their mother's health.

"We were always aware of it as she would be in and out of hospital, and that had an impact on us. I learned how to cook, do the washing up, sort out the clothes and make lunches quite early," the russet-haired young woman explains.

Once Catherine's health improved somewhat, she was keen to give something back.

"Any day you can get out of bed is a good day. My job here in Knock is dealing with mass cards, but I feel it is more than that; I like to talk to the pilgrims. The last day I was here, a gentleman wanted a mass card for his daughter and I foolishly asked if she was ill and he told me she had committed suicide. He was devastated; he sat there and talked with me and the two of us cried.

"Listening is part of this. If people want to tell you their troubles - and a lot of them do - I would consider myself to be a good listener. Sometimes people can talk more easily to a stranger."

Knock's priority, according to Catherine, is the disabled and the sick. "They get priority for everything here and that is how it should be."

The anointing and blessing of the sick takes place twice a day at the shrine, and the handmaids help these vulnerable pilgrims.

"To see people going up to be anointed and to see people carrying babies that are ill. You look at them and think, 'I am not badly off, there are people worse than me'. It puts things into perspective."

Ellen volunteers because she also wanted to give something back and help other people.

"You see all the illnesses and you realise how lucky you are. We help pilgrims by giving them a break or bringing them somewhere, or even just getting the older people their holy water. The handmaids have a shop set up in St John's Respite Centre, which saves them having to go out to the main street to get what they want. We are here to give them a cup of tea and a break."

Each pristine white uniform bears the handmaids' crest with a gold embroidered trinity knot and the letters CM, which stands for Cumhala Mhuire ('Handmaid of Mary'). Every veil carries a golden rose, which is linked to the 1879 apparition. Possible changes to the handmaids' uniform may be coming down the line - but Catherine and Ellen are unfazed.

"Most handmaids are married with children, but the uniform makes us look like nuns. If the uniform changes, we won't be worried, and though we don't yet know what it may become, it may be still something that still stands out in the crowd," Catherine says. For now, they regard their retro look with a certain level of affection.

But the need for an update to the handmaids' look has been highlighted by the emergence of a new cohort of younger volunteers in Knock. VAKs, or Volunteers At Knock, are usually recognisable, Mairead Jennings of Knock Youth Ministry explains, by their cheerful orange hoodies, or bright green T-shirts.

This year, there are 120 VAKs working at weekends and during the novena. When the 16 to 18-year-olds are not hanging out in the 'Hub', they are around the grounds greeting pilgrims and assisting any that need information and help. Their hoodies sport a smiley face with a 'HI!' on it, prompting some to start calling them 'HIs'. They certainly don't look like nuns.

There is a vibrancy and sense of newness in Knock these days which the ever-present rain can't dampen. Knock's message, according to Ellen, is one of hope, and rain is an emblem of the irrepressible spirit of the place - and a reminder of that night on August 21, 1879.

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