Sister Mary Katherine is reverent when receiving a blessing, but also vocal when she’s asked about Jesus.
“She’s Catholic,” said Barbara Bearden matter of fact. “… I can say to her, ‘Where is Jesus, have you seen Jesus this morning’ and she’ll just sing. She’s very vocal.”
Katie, for short, is a 4-and-a-half year old miniature schnauzer, owned by Bearden, a parishioner at Immaculate Conception Church in Fort Smith who loves taking her dog for a pet blessing each October.
“When he started reading the Scripture and started praying, the animals, it’s like they knew,” Bearden, 84, said while trying to hold back tears, “they knew they were supposed to be quiet. Every one of them was just as quiet and reverent as they could be. I never saw anything like it, it was so beautiful.”
October marks that special time of year when parishioners do not have to look into their pet’s sad eyes and tell them they have to stay home while their person goes to church. They get to come along and receive a special pet blessing in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, whose feast day is Oct. 4.
St. Francis of Assisi was the first saint to consider blessing animals about 800 years ago, according to “The St. Francis Prayer Book” written by Jon Sweeney. In a 2011 article on HuffingtonPost.com, Sweeney emphasized that the saint “first introduced the idea that human beings are only one of a myriad of creations of God and all are blessed in God’s eyes.”
It is told, Sweeney shared, that St. Francis preached to birds, blessed fish that were caught before releasing them back into the water and spoke with wolves.
Taken from the priest’s Book of Blessings, pet blessings typically include prayers, Scripture readings and the sprinkling of holy water.
Holy Redeemer Church in El Dorado has led pet blessings for more than 10 years. Father Edward D’Almeida said.
“We as creatures of God look at the animals with affection and love for them. We recognize how God takes care of us and we show them a little bit of God’s love,” he said.
Holy Redeemer secretary Judi Ostergaard always takes her 11-year-old yorkshire terrier Ginger, clad in a Razorback jersey and St. Francis medal on her collar, to be blessed and has put her faith in St. Francis to protect the five-pound pup. When she was born, she had a “small eye” which impairs vision or causes blindness. The vet warned they’d likely have to remove it.
“I prayed to St. Francis to intercede if you will keep this little puppy from not losing this eye.” and she promised to take care of her always, Ostergaard said. “She has never lost her eye. We’re always there for the blessing of the animals. I’ve got to keep up my end of bargain.”
Joe Beffa, a parishioner at St. Joseph Church in Fayetteville, took his black lab and shepherd mix named Alex to the pet blessings for years.
“That’s the one I got blessed the most,” he said. A protective, yet loving dog, Beffa and his family made the heartbreaking decision to euthanize Alex in 2016 at 10 years old after he developed bone marrow cancer.
This year will be the second blessing for the lovable, social Charlie Brown, his year-old chocolate lab.
“I look forward to the pet blessing. It’s just like his baptism and his christening every year. Dogs bring a lot of love to you,” he said.
But pet blessings are not reserved for dogs.
Melanie Moses, a parishioner at Holy Redeemer, has dogs, cats, chickens and years ago, owned horses and cows, and has brought many to pet blessings.
“A lot of times people see chickens and cows as food, but I’ve always seen them as pets. They bring me comfort, I enjoy working with them,” she said. “They say people live longer if they have pets. I just think animals are one of God’s blessings.”
In recent years, she brought her rooster, aptly named Phoenix, to be blessed.
At St. Joseph School in Paris, pre-k through eighth grade students get to bring their iguanas, goats, chickens, rabbits, turtles, cats and other furry or scaly critters for a blessing. Deacon Tom Pohlmeier plays his guitar while children, parishioners or others in attendance sing “The Prayer of St. Francis.” If a child doesn’t have a pet, their favorite stuffed animal will do.
“Everything that God made is good and for our enjoyment and our pleasure and so his creatures bring us joy and happiness and it’s another way he shows us he loves us,” said school secretary Sharon Pohlmeier, wife of Deacon Tom.
Coupled with the blessing, sixth through eighth grade teacher Eileen Freeman’s students collect food, collars and blankets to donate to the Charleston Dog Shelter.
“We are all called to be good stewards, and part of stewardship is helping take care of God’s creatures,” Freeman said.
Unconditional love is not hard to find — at least in pets. It’s ever present in their eyes, allowing Catholics to connect with God on a deeper level.
“It’s unconditional love just like God’s unconditional love. If you make a mistake God’s forgiving,” just like animals, Beffa said. “They don’t stay mad at you; they forgive and forget because they don’t know anything but love as long as you treat them like you’re supposed to treat them.”
Barbara Bearden believes the Blessed Mother led her right to Sister Mary Katherine.
“I went to morning Mass, I knelt before the Blessed Mother, I told her I’m unhappy, I’m sad. Would you help me find a little schnauzer not in my time but yours,” Bearden said. After arriving home, she opened up the newspaper to find an advertisement for mini schnauzers.
Bearden said she shares her faith by sharing that story. “I’ve always been close to the Holy Family, but I think since I had her and had Maddie I pray a lot more because I want her to be safe.”
Deacon Al Genna will be blessing pets for the first time in years at St. Bernard Church in Bella Vista. Because the area is largely a retirement community, Genna said pets “bring peace” to many parishioners, including calming anxiety, service animals and simply companionship.
“St. Francis is the protector of all creatures and the patron saint of animals and because those animals brought comfort to him so they bring comfort” to others, he said. “I remember one of our parishioners who died a few months ago, he lost his dog not too long before his own death. His family was overjoyed when I mentioned his dog in his funeral homily. It was a very special thing to them and comforting because I recognized how much comfort his dog brought to him.”
Moses said her pets have helped bring comfort while grieving for her husband Noah, who died two years ago.
“All of my animals have helped in that respect. I’ve got a cat who acts like a toddler. He’s 22 pounds,” she said, adding his name is “Little Bit. He’s like a small child that doesn’t want their parents to leave in the morning. He gets underfoot, lays on my clothes” while she’s trying to leave.
As most pet parents will understand, Ostergaard said when her yorkie Ginger looks up at her it’s like she’s looking into her soul.
“It just gives me a feeling of peace,” she said. “St. Francis is my patron saint and I just feel close to any kind of animal. I feel like it’s a special thing we can do for our pets, I do believe they receive a blessing. They seem to have better health; it makes me closer to my pet and God.”
Please read our Comments Policy before posting.Article comments powered by Disqus