Four-legged blessings

Published 7:10 pm Friday, September 24, 2010

The Rev. Gary Barker blesses a cat at last year’s Blessing of the Animals at Historic St. Luke’s Church in Smithfield.

One of the stories about St. Francis of Assisi goes something like this: The people of a village were ready to kill a wolf that had been terrorizing them, but Francis managed to calm both the wolf and the villagers and get them to live in harmony.

“St. Francis is known to have loved all of nature in a beautiful way,” said the Rev. Gary Barker, vicar of Historic St. Luke’s Church in Smithfield. “The way we celebrate that is to celebrate our connection with our animal friends.”

Francis’ feast day comes on Oct. 4, and churches around the world typically celebrate by inviting parishioners’ animal friends into the sanctuary and doing a Blessing of the Animals. This year, Historic St. Luke’s is holding the event Sunday, Oct. 3 at 2 p.m.

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The tradition at the church began many years ago when Richard Austin, the former director, decided to start it, Barker said. Austin had a dog named Lilly, who now is buried on the church grounds and has a children’s book in her honor in the church’s gift shop. The book tells the story of Lilly attending a blessing of the animals.

Barker said the St. Luke’s event attracts mostly dogs and cats, but other past attendees have included gerbils, birds, snakes and farm animals.

“Sometimes we have people who have sick animals who simply bring a picture of their pet,” Barker said. “It’s very powerful. People are so attached to their pets.”

The humans in attendance at the ceremony will sing hymns at the beginning of the service, accompanied by their four-legged friends.

“The dogs usually howl along with us,” Barker said. “We talk a little bit about caring for our pets and the responsibility we have, but also the joy and the love they bring us, and the way we learn about God and life from our pets.”

Following his short sermon, Barker will bless each animal individually by making the sign of the cross on each one.

“It’s nothing elaborate, frankly, but it’s powerful,” Barker said. “It’s a beautiful time, and it’s a simple ceremony.”

Guests at the Blessing of the Animals are asked to bring donations for the Isle of Wight County Animal Shelter, which is in need of dried and canned food for kittens, cats and puppies, dog and cat treats, blankets and clay, non-clumping cat litter.

Historic St. Luke’s is located at 14477 Benn’s Church Blvd. For more information, call the church at 357-3367.