A pioneering pilgrimage

The first American diocesan pilgrimage to Knock isn’t short on ambition, Greg Daly is told

When flight EI 4102 arrived at Ireland West Airport Knock on Sunday August 9, carrying Knock Shrine’s first diocesan pilgrimage tour from the US, it marked the realisation of Msgr James Horan’s dream for the airport.  

“That’s why it was built,” says the shrine’s rector, Fr Richard Gibbons. “As I said when it was announced, ‘He’ll be smiling down on us’.”

Maria Hunt, head of marketing and communications at the shrine, agrees that this kind of international pilgrimage group is exactly “what the airport was intended for”.

“Think back to when the airport was built,” she says. “Msgr Horan’s main motivation wasn’t daily flights to London. His vision was to get pilgrimages into Knock. It’s finally happening from New York. This is realising his vision.“

The idea for the pilgrimage should be understood in the context of the shrine’s Witness to Hope initiative which entails among things a greater promotion of the shrine. “The international element of that comes in then,” she says, “and the hope is to bring in pilgrimages from all over the world.”


The pilgrimage is being led by the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who Fr Gibbons says “comes to Knock every time he comes over, even when he’s on holidays”, and who in 2013 had Fr Gibbons preach in New York’s St Patrick’s Cathedral on St Patrick’s Day.

“He was over here for the Eucharistic Congress in 2012 and we entertained him here in Knock,” he says. “Just in the course of the lunch he invited me to preach for Saint Patrick’s Day which took me completely by surprise!

“It was a great honour,” he continues. “He told me I’d got 10 minutes to preach and no longer, because we’d to go out and see the parade, so that was perfect. 

“You would be nervous for that because the Governor of New York was there and the mayor – the cardinal wasn’t there because he was in Rome electing the Pope!”

In the aftermath of the visit, Fr Gibbons explains, “we kept up relations and the connection and I simply posited the idea wouldn’t it be great to bring the archdiocese over on a pilgrimage, and he said it would be and that’s where this came out of.”

It’s clear that the cardinal is deeply invested in this pilgrimage: not merely is he leading it, but he played a crucial role in its planning, according to New York-based tour operator Peter Bahou, CEO and President of Peter’s Way Tours, a company that’s been running since 1985, the same year the first flights took off from Knock airport, and which specialises in pilgrimages and tours for choral groups.

“Usually I dream up all of the programmes and itinerary, but the cardinal had a lot to say on the programme,” he says, describing how he was instrumental in mapping out the details of the pilgrimage which will be conducted on the ground by Dublin-based Abbey Tours.

The itinerary certainly can’t be faulted for a lack of ambition. Leaving New York on Saturday, August 8, the group was greeted with a reception at Knock airport on Sunday, August 9, after which they headed directly to Knock Shrine where they attended Mass – televised by RTÉ – celebrated by Fr Gibbons in the basilica.

This was followed by a gala dinner.

The following day saw the group leaving their Westport hotel at six in the morning for Lough Derg, where the cardinal planned to celebrate Mass, taking in some Sligo sights on the way back to their hotel. 

The next day they visited the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher as they made their way to Killarney, where on Wednesday they toured the lakes and some highlights of the Ring of Kerry before the cardinal celebrated Mass in St Mary’s Cathedral.

Today – Thursday – the group plan to visit the Gallarus Oratory on the Dingle Peninsula and hope to celebrate Mass at Poll an Aifrinn, the hollow that’s home to the Mass rock where Cromwellian troops arrested the Dominican martyr Fr Tadhg Moriarty in 1653. 


Friday will see the group visiting Galway City and Connemara on the way back to Knock, where Cardinal Dolan will celebrate the opening Mass of this year’s Knock novena.

Saturday, August 15, will of course be the feast of the Assumption, so after a trip to Croagh Patrick Visitor Centre and Ballintubber Abbey, the group’s last night in Ireland will see them attending Mass in the basilica at Knock, joining afterwards in the novena prayers and the candlelit procession to the Apparition Chapel.

For the first pilgrimage group to come to Knock from New York in so ambitious a way, Maria Hunt says, is a “huge, huge thing”. 

Explaining that 70% of the pilgrims to the shrine come from within Ireland, with the bulk of the remaining 30% from the UK and mainland Europe, she says “the dream would be to make it a more ongoing and regular thing, not just for New York – but other groups could do it too.

“This is kind of a trial run, or test,” she says. “It’s a new thing for us – it’s never really been done before, so we’ll try to assess how it goes, to find out what does and what doesn’t work.”

It’s significant that the group is led by Cardinal Dolan, she says, describing him as “a huge draw for people”, with focal figures being vitally important when helping groups to gel. 

It will help too, she says, that the tour will give ordinary New York Catholics “an opportunity to spend time with their diocesan leader”.

Not that everyone on the tour is a New Yorker, though, stresses Mr Bahou, who says that “close to 50% of the pilgrims are from outside New York state, coming from all across America.”.

“The cardinal is very popular outside New York as well,” he continues, highlighting how Cardinal Dolan has been promoting the tour on radio shows, talking about the pilgrimage and Knock in general.


The result, he says, is that the pilgrimage is drawing pilgrims from all across the US, whether from New England dioceses like Hartford and Boston, Midwestern ones like the archdioceses of Chicago and the cardinal’s old stomping ground of Milwaukee, and even from states as far south as Florida and Louisiana and as far west as California and Nevada.  

Couples make up the overwhelming majority of the group’s pilgrims according to Ms Hunt, but Mr Bahou says there are quite a few single people coming too, and even some families, with a real mix of young and old people. Many, he says, are of Irish background, and Ms Hunt says that for those with strong Irish connections the pilgrimage offers “a chance to come back and reconnect with their heritage”.

No doubt Msgr Horan will be smiling down the whole time.