PEABODY — It was a Palm Sunday to remember at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, and it had nothing to do with the hundreds of palm fronds being waved in the air or the fact this is the final Holy Week here for the pastor, the Rev. Richard Burton.
Yesterday belonged to Firefly, a miniature mule that accompanied the priest down the center aisle at the start of the 9:30 a.m. children's Mass.
Cameras flashed and children giggled as the well-liked priest, dressed in red and gold vestments, kept a tight grip on the bridle of an animal that rode down from New Hampshire yesterday morning in the back of a van to make its church debut.
"I've been promising the kids this for five years," said Burton, 50, who leaves this parish in a week to take over a church in Methuen. "I've always wanted to bring a donkey down the aisle because that's what the gospel says."
Burton, of course, was attempting to recreate the story of Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem. When reminded Firefly was a mule, not a donkey, Burton took the news in stride.
"Oh, that's all right," he said. "I don't know the difference anyway."
Burton said he gave up the idea of riding the mule long ago.
"At the church picnic every year, we have a pony ride and the limit is 200 pounds," he said. "I've never been able to get below 203 so I never get to ride anything."
It took an effort of almost Biblical proportions to find a donkey — or rather, mule — for Palm Sunday, a search that began weeks ago with a personal plea from the priest.
"He came up to me at a meeting one night and said, 'Can you get me a donkey?'" said Colleen Kolodziej, a member of the parish council.
The Peabody woman, an assistant city clerk at City Hall, called the mayor's office, Essex Agricultural and Technical High School, Dunajski Dairy in Peabody and an office at the Topsfield Fair before being referred to an animal trainer in Kensington, N.H.
"I don't have a donkey, but I have a mule," said Soso Whaley, whose dancing mini-mule, Firefly, appears regularly at the Topsfield Fair and tried out last year for the TV show "America's Got Talent."
"If it's got four legs and can walk, I'll take it," Kolodziej replied.
Before Mass yesterday, Kolodziej stood nervously in front of the church, praying the mule would be on time. Minutes before Mass, she was told that Firefly had arrived unnoticed in a blue van and was in the adjacent church cemetery stretching its legs.
"Is it cute?" she asked a friend who had seen the animal.
"I think so," said Dolly Pierzchala. "I only saw it from the back."
In all, Firefly was inside the church for just a few minutes. Even so, the staff was prepared for any contingency.
"We had a shovel in the back," said Sheila Lynch, a church secretary.
After walking, without incident, all the way to the altar and even stopping to pose for photographs, Firefly walked back down the aisle with its trainer, exiting to applause.
Once the mule was gone, a smiling Burton continued the Mass, his last Palm Sunday service at a church where he has made a lot of friends and left a lot of memories.
"We're going to miss him," Kolodziej said. "We're going to miss him a lot."