Irish Catholics flock to Limerick church’s tree stump, see image of Virgin Mary

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A family look at the stump in St Patricks Roman Catholic Church, Limerick, Ireland, Thursday, July, 9, 2009. Thousands of Irish Catholics are flocking to a church to pray at a tree stump _ a recently cut-down willow that many say bears the shape of the Virgin Mary. The phenomenon at St. Mary’s parish church in the village of Rathkeale in County Limerick harkens back to decades past when Catholic devotion and pilgrimages were a dominant feature of rural life in Ireland. (AP Photo) (AP, AP / July 9, 2009)
Thousands of Irish Catholics have flocked this week to a County Limerick church to pray at the stump of a recently cut willow that many observers say, has the silhouette of the Virgin Mary.

The phenomenon at St. Mary’s parish church in Rathkeale, population 3,000 or so, harkens back to decades when Catholic devotion and pilgrimages were the dominant feature of rural life in Ireland.

Some are tying the fervor for Rathkeale’s “Holy Stump” to Ireland’s stunning economic decline over the past year.

“People have been crying out for something good to happen. And this is all good for the soul,” said Noel White, who has been overseeing a church project to cut down trees dangerously overhanging the neighboring school playground.

When one willow was felled near the church entrance Monday, he said, a major branch cracked off and made “a funny shape.” One worker cut through the stump at a near-vertical angle, revealing a wooden relief that inspires some to see the Virgin Mary.

“One lad beside the one who’d made the cut immediately saw the outline of Our Lady and blessed himself. It really is unreal. Every one of us could see it,” he said.

The workman who made the cut, Anthony Reddin, said he doesn’t see the Virgin Mary.

“I see it as the grain of a tree myself,” he said.

Nonetheless, word of mouth brought about 100 to inspect and pray at the stump that first night. Numbers swelled to several hundred the next night. By Wednesday, more than a thousand came and went as a makeshift shrine of candles, rosaries and miniature statues of Mary grew. The praying continued past 2 a.m. Thursday.

The parish priest is away on vacation. His summer replacement, the Rev. Willie Russell, is not impressed. He says locals are letting their imagination run wild and threatening to violate the commandment, “Thou shalt not worship a false God.”

“It’s just a tree. You don’t worship a tree,” Russell said.

The priest said he saw no harm in saying Hail Mary prayers at the spot — so long as the faithful don’t actually find themselves praying to the stump itself. “I don’t believe in idolatry. That would be the danger,” he said.


Virgin Mary Tree Stump
The County Limerick diocese of the church said it viewed the stump with “great skepticism.”

“While we do not wish in any way to detract from devotion to Our Lady, we would also wish to avoid anything which might lead to superstition,” the diocese said in a statement.

White said he didn’t understand the church’s distinction between its age-old love of statues and this natural discovery.

“We pray in front of statues which are marble and chalk. What’s the difference if it’s timber?” he said.

Not all find what they come to see. Sometimes, the crowds prove too great to get a good look. Others wonder if the lighting has to be just right, or the wood dry and not damp.

Irish Catholics saw images of the Virgin Mary during Ireland’s last recession in the mid-1980s, when thousands prayed at village statues believed to gesture, nod or even hover.

The stump has proven a boon for the local economy, with the curious traveling from neighboring counties to light votive candles and say rosaries — and sample the local pubs and shops.

Rathkeale shopkeeper Seamus Hogan is leading a petition drive to deter village authorities from uprooting and removing the stump, as they originally planned to do Wednesday. The petition has more than 2,000 signatures — and White’s tree-cutters have gotten the message.

“We won’t be removing the stump. We’d remove it at our peril,” White said.


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