Faithful pets celebrated in annual Blessing of the Animals at area churches
Every year on or around the fourth day of October, people all over the world, residents of Orange County included, gather to celebrate St. Francis Day in honor of the patron saint of animals, Saint Francis of Assisi. In remembrance of his love for all creatures, guardians or pet parents traditionally take their animal companions to church for a Blessing of the Animals.
According to the Humane Society, the earliest books about Saint Francis were written by Thomas of Celano, a member of Francis’ religious order who knew the saint personally. Thomas’ books reveal Francis’ love for animals and his conviction that religious faith and care for God’s creatures go hand in hand.
Today, over 3 million people a year make a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Francis in the town of Assisi, revealing him to be one of the most popular and beloved saints of all time.
In 1979, Pope John Paul II paid tribute to Francis’ love for creation by declaring him the patron saint of ecologists.
The pope encouraged prisoners to follow the example of Saint Francis by embracing all creatures as members of a single family and by offering respect, dignity and care to each family member.
“It is my hope that the inspiration of Saint Francis will help us to keep ever alive a sense of ‘fraternity’ with all those good and beautiful things which Almighty God has created,” he said in his declaration. “And may he remind us of our serious obligation to respect and watch over them with care, in light of that greater and higher fraternity that exists within the human family.”
Among the annual local services of the Blessing of the Animals, a custom that originated in the 13th century, is Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Fountain Valley, which took on the custom in 2006 and usually sees from 25 to 30 animals brought to the service.
“We mainly have dogs, but there have been cats, parrots, birds, iguana, snake, chinchilla and even a fish in a bowl,” said Pat Erskine, business manager for the church.
Father Michael Hanifin of St. Joachim in Costa Mesa has been blessing animals for seven years in the outdoor playground on the church campus.
“We usually have 60 to 70 dogs, cats, lizards, birds, parrots and doves [brought in for blessing],” said Fr. Hanifin. “We get a lot of children bringing pets, lots of enthusiasm and excitement, a wee bit of chaos — all part of the ritual of interacting with other animals they may be unfriendlier with.”
St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach rolled out the “green” carpet this year for the animal guests. About 185 people and 92 pets showed up for the blessing, including some in wheelchairs and strollers and some up for pet adoption.
“This year we have a unicorn pony, emu, some goats and a pig celebrating with us all the way from Hemet,” said Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees. “We have a synthetic green grass runway running down the center aisle inside the church to make our four-legged, furry, hopping, slithery, swimming — yes, I have even blessed goldfish — feel welcome and extra special.”
A special after-church event at St. James included popcorn, face painting and a balloon artist.
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