Paws and prayers: Hoover church’s furry congregation gets blessed
By Claire Trammell, Reflect Alabama Fellow
On a recent Sunday afternoon, the parking lot of Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Hoover was crowded, not just with cars, but with churchgoers and their pets.
Pastor Jon Chalmers, joined by Deacon Rick DiGiorgio, stood in front of a small table with two bowls. The bowls contained water that Chalmers blessed, making it holy water. After praying for both the congregants and their pets, they each picked up a bowl and a tree branch.
They calmly approached each animal, dipping the branch into the water and sprinkling it on their fur. In response, some dogs barked, some whimpered, and three Boston Terriers, Peppermint Patty, Lucy and Rosie, tried to drink out of the bowl.
“They needed a blessing,” their owner Patty Lancy said.
While the animals were the stars of the service, it had a larger purpose – to honor St. Francis of Assisi.
“St. Francis of Assisi was the patron saint of animals,” said member John Meehan, “He loved animals … All these are God’s little, little, little creatures … And we want to preserve. And I think this is a great thing to have this event and all.”
The tradition is one at Roman Catholic and Protestant churches nationwide, often around October 4, which is the feast of St. Francis. This service and those like it are dedicated to the loved ones that don’t usually get to attend church: the animals.
“We all recognize [Saint Francis of Assisi] as a holy person and one who is connected to God and his creatures and nature,” DiGiorgio said.
Chalmers knelt down to bless Welker, one of the oldest, and most vocal, dogs at the service. This blessing was extra special for Welker and his family, since it might be the last service he attends. The thirteen year old lab has been battling prostate cancer, but his owner remains hopeful.
“They gave him two to six weeks to live and it’s been 15 weeks, and he’s doing well. So we’re just happy to have all this time with him.” Ed Galotta said. “We just wanted this to be special for him because we don’t know how much time he’s going to have. But the way he’s going, we’re hoping he’s got a good amount of time left.”
Being blessed right alongside these older dogs were puppies, like Maggie. Everything – the blessing, the church, and even her family and her home – were new. She was adopted from a golden retriever rescue the night before.
“We got Maggie yesterday after soccer games,” said Tina Greenway, while her three young children stood by her side.
Her husband walked Maggie around, introducing her to other church members as he beamed with pride.
“We were very excited to bring our puppy here to get blessed today, hoping we have her a very long time, and she stays healthy,” Greenway added.
Towards the end of his blessing, Chalmers stopped and unzipped a carrier, revealing the face of a surprisingly calm cat, one of only a few cats that attended. Chalmers dipped the tree into the bowl, and, very gently, sprinkled a small amount of water onto the cat, O’Malley’s, head. O’Malley flinched for a second, but returned to his calm state as his owner John Meehan zipped his carrier back up.
“He’s just a special little cat and I love him,” said Meehan, “I’m just glad to have events like this.”
O’Malley and Meehan have been close companions since the cat followed him home over a year ago.
With about twenty pets blessed, Chalmers led the congregation in a final prayer: the prayer of St. Francis.
The chatter among churchgoers returns. They slowly say their goodbyes, and take their pets back home.
Though the animals might be unaware, there is a different feeling among the congregation and the clergy after the blessing.
“Blessing [does] two things,,” Deacon Rick DiGiorgio said as he poured out the holy water and folded the table it sat on. “It acknowledges God and it seeks God’s help, assistance, grace upon whatever we’re blessing. And then also communicating that to us humans, as we commune with God and His nature.”
The deacon and pastor head back inside, where it’ll be another year before everyone’s favorite companions get to be blessed once again.