DESPITE the early morning rain, thousands of faithful turned out for the first session of the 72nd Clonard Solemn Novena yesterday (Wednesday) morning.

In what is the biggest event in the West Belfast calendar, people of all ages from right across the city and far beyond made their way to the iconic West Belfast church as prayers began in packed-out pews at the 6.45am Mass.

The Novena will continue until June 25.

Clonard Rector Fr Noel Kehoe told the Andersons-town News that over 1,500 people had attended the 6.45am service with the “church, corridors and marquee all needed for the people.”

“It was great to start this year’s Novena and welcome everyone and to see so many people was a wonderful beginning to mark 150 years of the Icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help being in the care of the Redemptorists.”

He went on: “There's a great buzz around Clonard and a real joy in people's faces. It's a pleasure to be part of it.”

During the 9.30am Mass parishioners were greeted by visiting Redemptorist priest and Caribbean native Fr Peter Hill, who shook hands with the parishioners and their families, and Rector of St Joseph’s in Dundalk, Fr Michael Cusack. Prayers were offered for the families of the five young Irish students and one young Irish-American who lost their lives in the Berkeley tragedy, as well as the reading of the petitions and thanksgiving.

We took a walk around to speak to the faithful.

“I come to the Clonard Novena every year,” said Andersonstown man Billy Johnston, “I must be coming some 60 years now and you come for spiritual guidance which I think a lot of people get. From going to school down here and attending the Novena I’m an out and out Clonard man.”

Rosemary Cunningham told us: “I’ve been coming to Clonard all my life, the Novena is very powerful and it’s lovely to see it coming around every year.”

Philomena McCormack said she was attending the Novena to pray for her little grandson Laurence O’Neill.

“I’ve been coming to Clonard for the best part of 20 years and my grandson, who was born last year, is currently on a waiting list at Birmingham’s Children Hospital for a liver transplant. When he was just three days old he was sent to be treated at Great Ormond Street Hospital and at the minute we are waiting to hear from the staff at Birmingham Hospital. I’m coming to the Novena to pray for him and my daughter and I’d just like to ask anyone who is coming to the Novena to offer a wee prayer up for him.”

During the nine-day Novena Fr Kehoe has asked people to follow the directions of the carpark attendants and to park carefully in the surrounding streets.