Penguins, Cows, Llamas – They All Came to Be Blessed

The scene was nothing short of magical at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, as dancers waving flags of green, blue and gold flitted down the nave, and choirs of dogs, birds, cats and humans echoed through the vaulting arches of the largest cathedral in the world.

Pet lovers of all faiths trekked to the 108-year-old house of worship to have their animals blessed at the 16th Annual Blessing of the Beasts held in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. The Right Rev. Richard Frank Grein, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, officiated.

Those who braved the two-hour wait for first-come-first-serve tickets were treated to a spectacular show of dancing, Kabuki puppetry and ethnic music by the cathedral's artist in residence, The Paul Winter Consort, and The Omega and Forces of Nature dance troupes. The grand finale – the exotic animal procession – included a penguin, cow, goldfish, two llamas, 4,000 European honeybees, a beaker of algae, Arabian and miniature horses, parrots, owls, snakes and tortoises. At the head of the procession was a tremendous golden eagle, the symbol of St. John the Divine. Past ceremonies were led by an elephant, Kenya, who died this year. Rather than replacing her, cathedral officials decided to leave a space in the procession, denoted by a wreath.

The cathedral holds 5,000 people and still could not accommodate everyone who wanted to attend the indoor ceremony. At the end of the services, St. John's clergy came out to individually bless pets on the cathedral's lawns. An outdoor fair, complete with arts and crafts and a petting zoo, followed the event.

A Spiritual Event

But the ceremony was more than just an extravaganza, as it held a deep spiritual meaning for many attendees.

"We're Christian and this is our first pet," said Kathleen Papamichael of Queens. "I'm Roman Catholic and he's Greek Orthodox," she added, referring to her husband, Nick, as he pulled the leash of their nine-month-old bulldog, Sugar Ray. "So it's very significant for us to be here."

Some pet owners were there to give thanks. Judy and Greg Norris of Manhattan brought their gerbil Slim (named for his chance of survival when they found him) to be blessed. They found Slim on a cold day two years ago, abandoned on a pile of trash, cage and all.

"He looked terrible. We brought him home to give him a warm place to die," Judy said. "But instead, his fur grew in and now he's fine – so we're here to thank God and celebrate his survival."

All Things Great and Small

The Feast Day mass focused on creation and the importance of environmental issues. Whale songs and sounds of the rainforest were incorporated into the hymnal offerings, and prayers were said for sick, abused, extinct and endangered animals. There were also relevant Bible readings, including this from the Book of Genesis, "God made the wild creatures of the earth of every kind … And God saw that it was good."

The thousands of animals in the church were generally well behaved, sitting patiently for more than two hours. Some dogs sang along with the choir whenever the organ began to play.

"It's really wonderful what they've done here at the Cathedral. They've really brought back the medieval tradition of the Blessing to where it should be," said Linda Anderson of Kearny, N.J., who was there with her husband Dave and Chuckles, their blue and gold macaw, a two-year veteran of the blessings.

"He's very social and used to the crowds," said Dave. "This is very special for him."

Who Was St. Francis?

St Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order, was well known for his love of animals and work with the sick and poor. Born Francis Bernardone, the son of a wealthy Umbrian merchant, he defied his family by giving up his wealth to live among the poor. In 1219, Francis is noted for attempting to convert the sultan al-Kamil while crusaders laid siege to Damietta in Egypt. And in 1224 he is said to have received the stigmata, the painful wounds of Christ in the hands, feet and side. He died on Oct. 3, 1226 at the age of 44, and his feast day is celebrated on Oct. 4.

St. Francis' blessing of the animals is said to have started when he preached to a flock of birds. As the story goes, Francis and his companions were walking near the town of Bevagna, Italy, when he came upon the flock. He stopped and asked the birds to stay and listen to the word of God. The birds remained still while Francis walked among them and said, "My brother and sister birds, you should praise your Creator and always love him. He gave you feathers for clothes, wings to fly and all other things that you need. It is God who made you noble among all creatures, making your home in thin, pure air. Without sowing or reaping, you receive God's guidance and protection."

At this, according to the story, the birds began to spread their wings, stretch their necks and gaze at Francis as if rejoicing in praise. Francis blessed them and is said to have wondered aloud afterward as to why he had not done this before. From that day on, Francis held sermons to bless the animals and was noted for many remarkable events involving animals. On one occasion he is supposed to have stopped a wolf from terrorizing a town by making a pact with it: if the townspeople would take care of it, the wolf would no longer kill people and livestock. Both honored the agreement and the wolf lived among the people in peace until the end of his days.