The five-year-old who testified to the Knock apparition

A 1.5-million-piece mosaic depicting the Knock apparition in 1879 (Irish Catholic Bishops/Flickr)

Today is the 138th anniversary of the apparition of the Blessed Virgin, along with St Joseph, St John the Evangelist and a lamb, in the village of Knock, County Mayo.‎

Over fifty years after those events in rural west of Ireland, the Mother Superior of a home run by The Little Sisters of the Poor on East 70th Street, New York, was reading an article about the apparition.  She turned to an Irishman‎ living in the home, who also served on the altar there, and asked whether he knew where Knock was. He said yes.

Mother Henri (who was also Irish) then asked whether he knew one of the visionaries‎ who, like him, was called John Curry. He said yes again.

And then he added: “He is the John Curry that serves Mass for you in this home every morning.” Up until that moment, the Mother Superior had had no idea that a visionary from Knock was living under her roof.

The incident is emblematic. As a later ‎John Curry points out, in his excellent 2009 booklet about his grand-uncle and namesake, the visionaries of Knock “went their separate ways, leading unspectacular lives”. They did not attract any great fame or notoriety and there is no evidence for even their own families making a great fuss about them.

All of this is doubly true of John Curry. He was only five in 1879 and the youngest of the 15 main eye-witnesses‎.  His testimony at the original commission of enquiry a few months after the apparition was, understandably, flimsy and brief, and tends to be overlooked. He spent most of his adult life as an unmarried labourer in America and ended his days in his home on East 70th. He was the last of the eye-witnesses to die. Even so, he was forgotten more than once in accounts of the vision written while he was still alive.

John Curry is forgotten no more, however. In May of this year, his body was reinterred from‎ an unmarked grave in a cemetery on Long Island to outside the walls of St Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Little Italy. During Mass in the cathedral, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who visited Knock last year, described John Curry as “an immigrant who really only distinguished himself by his simplicity, his humility, his kindness and his piety”. In 1936, John Curry – noting that “I don’t write much” – replied to a letter from Fr Dan Corcoran, curate of Knock parish, in which he expresses his regret at ever having left Ireland and asks the priest to remember him to his cousins.

So what happened to John Curry on that night in August‎ of 1871 and what did he see? In his testimony to the original commission of enquiry as a five-year-old, John could state no more than that he saw the beautiful images, the Blessed Virgin and St Joseph; that he heard the people around him talking about them; and that he went up on to the wall around the church to see “the nice things and the lights”. Another witness, Patrick Hill, who was eleven years old and John Curry’s cousin, stated that John asked him to lift him up so that he could “see the grand babies, as he called the figures”.

In his 1936 letter to Fr Corcoran, he said that he remembered that St John held a book; that another of the visionaries, Bridget Trench, kissed the Blessed Virgin’s feet; and that, on a rainy night, there was no rain falling on the figures.

A second commission of enquiry took place in 1937. Timothy Dolan’s predecessor, Cardinal Hayes established a tribunal in New York so that John Curry, one of only three surviving eye-witnesses at that point, could testify. The letter of summons referred still to the “rumour of the apparition”. John was told that he would be “under penalty of censure and other ecclesiastical penalties” if he neglected to attend.

Attend he did. In a building on Madison Avenue, he testified again to what he saw and heard at the gable wall of an Irish country church fifty-eight years before. There is again more detail than he was able to offer as a five-year-old. The figures were alive but did not speak. St Joseph had whiskers. The Blessed Virgin was dressed in white. And so forth. John Curry’s testimony gives us some inkling of the man: humble, shy, deferential, haltingly articulate – yet when pressed, ready to stand his ground.

It is a haunting, touching story. And it begins with the image of an eleven-year-old country boy lifting up his five-year-old cousin, and sitting him on a rough stone wall, so that he could peer, through heavy Irish rain, into eternity.