Knock Shrine Society was established on the 21st August 1935 by the late Dame Judy Coyne and her husband Liam Ua Cadhain with the approval of the then Archbishop of Tuam, Most Rev. Dr. Thomas P. Gilmartin. On that day, the principal witness to the Apparition at Knock, Mrs. Mary O’Connell (nee Byrne), was present at the Shrine for the ceremonies. The main reason for its establishment at that time was to promote the Shrine of Knock at home and abroad so that it could take its rightful place with the other important Marian Shrines in Europe and elsewhere. Its first members also wanted to bring some order into the ceremonies at Knock Shrine and to provide facilities for the protection and care of the Sick who were coming to the Shrine in large numbers.
The first Meeting of the Society took place in the old Schoolhouse which was across the road from the Church of the Apparition, at that time. There was just a handful of people present. The Society would be a Voluntary one consisting of both men and women. The male members would be called Stewards, or in the Gaelic, Giollaí Mhuire and the female members would be called Handmaids or again, in the Gaelic, Cumhala Mhuire. The stewards would wear a distinctive Sash when on duty at the Shrine and the Handmaids would wear a white uniform. The Society would also have a “Promoters’ Section”, membership of which would be open to people from all walks of life and age groups, residing anywhere in the world. Members would have to observe strict rules of discipline and fully comply with an agreed Code of Conduct. Members would also have to attend two days of Recollection every year, one in the Spring, at the beginning of the Pilgrimage Season and one at the end of the Season in the Autumn. Great emphasis was placed on the fact that the Society’s work would be predominantly spiritual.
From the Society’s humble beginnings in 1935, its membership continued to grow, year by year so that when Pope John Paul II visited Knock in 1979 the Society had 1,200 members, evenly divided between Handmaids and Stewards. For more than seventy years Knock Shrine Society has had a vibrant and active presence at Knock and has contributed, in numerous ways, to making Knock Shrine one of the principal centres of Marian devotion in the modern world and today, it is a member of the European Marian Network which consists of the twenty most famous Marian Shrines in Europe. Furthermore, Knock Shrine has been honoured by all the Popes from Pius XII to John Paul II. The Society has provided an excellent service for millions of pilgrims and especially the Sick, elderly and those with disabilities, down the years and continues to do so to this day.
The great driving force behind all the great developments in Knock from the 1930’s until her death in 2002 was the late Dame Judy Coyne. She worked tirelessly for the Shrine for seventy years, encouraging the development of facilities for pilgrims and the Sick, running St. Joseph’s Rest House, publishing promotional literature, establishing various Apostolates and supporting the Society she founded with her husband, Liam, in 1935. she always valued the support she received from the various Archbishops of Tuam and the Parish Priests of Knock and it’s not surprising that she was honoured, on two occasions, by the Vatican receiving the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Medal – the highest honour that can be given to a woman - and the Dame of the Order of St. Sylvester award, the first Irish woman ever to receive that honour.