Churches Open Doors for 'Blessing of the Animals'
Annual ceremony invites four-legged friends to participate in ritual.
NEW YORK -- The October 2 mass at Saint Bartholomew's Church in midtown Manhattan featured some unusual guests, who contributed to the hymns and songs in their own, unique way: barking.
Dogs big and small, along with several cats and one rabbit, filled the pews at Saint Bartholomew's. The Episcopalian church was among the many churches in New York City and in the United States to celebrate the Feast of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals and the environment, by offering a mass blessing of the animals.
"We've been coming with Gracen [a nine-year-old, fluffy gray rabbit] for nearly five years," owner Steve Williams said of the Blessing of the Animals event. "It's a nice reflection. She's a real part of our family and she should have the same experience that we have."
A tradition at St. Bartholomew's for more than 20 years, the day offers a way for people to share the church experience with their pets, says Reverend Lynn Sanders, as they are often regarded as simply a part of the family.
Pets slowly trickled in with their owners to the special late afternoon service, some making their presence known a little more loudly then others.
Sanders treated the visiting pets -- no reptiles or birds, which have been known to show up in past years -- graciously, calling them all up one by one to be blessed and patted.
A line of people cradling their smaller dogs and cats and leading larger animals by their leashes filled up the aisle at St. Bart's. Family members stood on the sidelines and snapped pictures as the pets stepped up to greet Sanders. She smiled at the pets and spoke quietly to them for several moments, stroking their heads.
The pets all seemed to take their blessings in stride.
During her sermon, Sanders reflected on how "loving and caring for our companion animals draw us deeper into our relationship with the world and nature." A passage of Genesis, in which God is depicted creating "living creatures of every kind," was also read during the hour-long service.
Dianna Collins, who lives in midtown, said she brings her Chihuahua-Jack Russell terrier mix, Pippa, to the Blessing of the Animals event every year. She says the occasion is as much about inclusion as it is about spirituality.
"I just want her to be healthy and to be blessed and to keep the good spirit that she has," Collins said.
This was Oakley's first year at the event. The rescued, 11-year-old Labrador Retriever was very calm throughout the service, his owners noted, perhaps because of the singing and music.
"The blessing is important. If he should pass on between this year and next year, we want him to be blessed," said one of his owners, Ian Archer-Watters.
His husband, Jack Watters, noted how the service has a certain effect on all churchgoers.
"It's just a much more relaxed service. Everyone has a smile on their faces," he said.
Pictured: A line of four-legged guests at St. Bartholomew's Church in New York City await their turn during the annual "Blessing of the Animals" event. (Photo by Amy Lieberman)
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