Knock shrine: New York pilgrims take first flight to Irish Catholic site
The first pilgrimage flight from New York to the Irish Catholic shrine at Knock, County Mayo, has been hailed as a "historic occasion" for the area.
The shrine was established in 1879 when 15 villagers reported an apparition of the mother of Jesus and other saints.
The Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, is leading about 180 people on the eight-day pilgrimage.
The chartered flight was the first transatlantic air service to Ireland West Airport, Knock, in eight years.
It is also the first time that Irish airline Aer Lingus has flown from the US to Knock and the pilgrims were greeted at the airport by Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Enda Kenny and Aer Lingus chief executive, Stephen Kavanagh.
The visit was arranged as the result of a conversation two years ago between the archbishop of New York and Knock's parish priest, Fr Richard Gibbons.
The priest said he hoped Sunday's pilgrimage would be the first of many from New York.
"This is a very important and historic day for the promotion of Knock, Ireland's national Marian shrine, at home and abroad.
"It is hugely significant that the Archdiocese of New York, led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, is deepening its relationship with Knock shrine and highlighting the spiritual heritage of Irish Americans, especially in New York," Fr Gibbons added.
The small Irish village first came to prominence in August 1879 when 15 local residents, who ranged in age from 74 to a child of five, reported the apparition on the gable wall of their parish church.
The witnesses said the Virgin Mary, St Joseph and St John the Evangelist appeared before them in pouring rain for about two hours. The apparition included a cross on an altar and a lamb - a Catholic symbol of Christ.
Two months later, the Catholic Church set up an inquiry into the claims, during which nine local clergymen interviewed each witness and asked them to give a written account of what they had seen.
The 1879 inquiry concluded that: "The testimony of the witnesses, taken as a whole, was trustworthy and satisfactory."
The site became an important landmark for the Irish Catholic Church and for religious tourism. Previous pilgrims to Knock have included the late Pope John Paul II.
He marked the shrine's centenary in 1979 by including Knock as one of his destinations in the first papal visit to Ireland.
Knock has not only hosted a papal visit, but in the years that followed it also became an unlikely site for an international airport, when the Catholic Church expanded its influence to aviation in 1980s Ireland.
Knock airport, now known as Ireland West Airport, was the brainchild of the village's energetic parish priest, the late Monsignor James Horan.
Known as 'the builder of Knock', Fr Horan led the multi-million pound construction project during a time of economic stagnation and mass emigration.
His current successor, Fr Gibbons, said Ireland West Airport Knock was "built specifically to welcome pilgrims to Knock shrine as well as to develop the economic life of the west [of Ireland]".
Fr Gibbons added that the pilgrimage was primarily about renewing interest in the shrine and the Catholic faith in general, but church staff would be lobbying Aer Lingus to schedule more commercial flights to and from Knock.