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October 8, 2012

Animals pack St. Andrew church for annual service

Nine-year-old Baley was having a hard time paying attention to the service Sunday morning at St. Andrew Episcopal Church.

She was fidgety, sometimes running down the aisles, jumping onto the pews or wandering up to strangers.

But it’s tough to blame Baley too much for her inattention. After all, she is only a small, furry Cockapoo — a curly-haired dog cross-bred from a Cocker Spaniel and a Poodle.

And she wasn’t alone. The entire cathedral-like sanctuary was packed Sunday with enormous 250-pound Irish Wolf Hounds, miniature Chihuahuas, furry cats, droopy-eared Basset Hounds and numerous other dog breeds, all of whom were waiting for their turn to meet with Rector Richard Lightsey.

The joyously raucous gathering of friendly beasts was part of the church’s annual blessing of the animals, where owners could bring their pets for a special benediction of protection and security in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment.

“It’s kind of a quirky thing, but it’s really quite spiritual and something people really look forward to,” Rector Lightsey said, noting the church has held the special service for nearly 20 years. “As the years have gone by, it’s really become an integral part of who we are as a parish.”

And the animals were an integral part during Sunday’s service, too.

While choir members singing hymns held their dogs and young acolyte Kat Davis awkwardly cuddled her large gray cat, a Black Labrador led parishioners carrying wine and wafers for communion to the front of the church.

Throughout most of the service, the roomfull of dogs and cats silently listened to the Bible readings and prayers. After reciting the Lord’s Prayer, one canine let out a happy bark, as if agreeing with its message.

“It’s weird,” said Cynthia Elkins as she held her dog Sophia Lynn, a half Australian Shepherd and German Wirehaired Pointer she and her husband rescued from the Kokomo Humane Society. “Every year at this Mass, it’s like when the sacred elements of the service are happening, they’re silent. They’re absolutely silent. It’s strange and very cool.”

Lightsey said pet blessing services are common in most Episcopalian and Catholic churches, but it’s rare to find a parish that actually allows the animals into the sanctuary for the special occasion.

“Typically when churches do this, they don’t do it during a normal service,” he said. “It’s usually done on a Sunday afternoon outside. So it’s pretty unique that we have ours inside during a traditional Sunday service.”

Bob Blanton, an attendee of St. Andrew, said he always looks forward to the blessing of the animals. But this year it had a special significance, he said, since it was the first time he brought his 3-year-old black cat Midge.

Blanton said he found Midge in his basement after she strayed into the house as a kitten. At the time, he said his father was dying, and the cute kitten was a Godsend that gave him something to care for and love.

“She came to us for a reason,” he said. “Now we take care of her, and she takes care of us emotionally.”

But for Blanton, the service was more than just a prayer to protect his pet — it was an admonition to love and respect all living things.

“For me, it’s a calling to be a caretaker of one of God’s creatures,” he said. “It’s my responsibility to take care of her and keep her safe, and I’d do the same for any of the animals here today.”

As the pets approached the pulpit for their blessing, Lightsey told the crowd their animals not only provide companionship — they also provide a profound insight into how believers should live in faith.

“Our pets teach us something,” he said. “They teach us that trying to have all of this stuff in our lives really doesn’t bring us the joy or happiness that our dogs have by just being who they are and trusting who it is that takes care of them. If we can learn the gift of simply being who we are and trusting God, who’s looking out for us, we’ll have a dog’s life and be blessed.”

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