SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

May 5, 2010

Dogs find a place in church

Danvers parish to host services for people and their pooches

By Ethan Forman
Staff writer

This article has been corrected since publication. To read the correction, please click here.

DANVERS — While no one really knows if all dogs go to heaven, Calvary Episcopal Church is giving area pooches and their owners improved odds with a new monthly worship service.

The first Perfect Paws Pet Ministry takes place on Sunday, May 16, from 5 to 5:30 p.m., in the church's Parish Hall.

After that, the church plans to hold the pet service on the third Sunday of every month, complete with communion for the humans who wish to partake and special blessings bestowed on pets and people alike. Dogs will get treats as part of the service.

Well-mannered, leashed dogs are invited. People can submit a paper prayer if their pets are sick, not good around other dogs or deceased. Prayers can also be offered for other types of pets.

The idea of the service is to take the unconditional love that pet owners feel for their animals and connect that to a feeling to something higher. The service is also meant to help someone who may be grieving from the loss of a pet.

"I think our hope is to meet people where the spirit is already active in their lives," the Rev. Thea Keith-Lucas said, "and their relationship with their animals is one where they are inspired by creation."

Owners' commitment to their pets has a meaning beyond just caring for animals. That love also shows caring for the world, of which all humans are stewards, Keith-Lucas said.

"As we talk together about commitment to these animals, it will spread out from there and deepen our commitment to all creation," Keith-Lucas said.

While the service will be a Christian one, it is open to pet owners who attend other churches or belong to other faiths.

Dogs will have a say during the service, Keith-Lucas said, because barking won't be banned.

"We'll hold on to the sacredness of the moment but in a way that is relaxed enough so people can be involved with their animals," Keith-Lucas said.

The 33-year-old mother of two young children has been the rector of Calvary Episcopal Church for 21/2 years. When she came onboard, the church had been conducting a Blessing of the Animals service for several years.

A love of pets

Keith-Lucas presided over the church's fifth annual such blessing in 2007 at Endicott Park. Each year, the event is a chance for people to bring all sorts of pets to be blessed.

The Blessing of the Animals draws 150 pets and 300 people, Keith-Lucas said, so many she only gets a minute or two with every animal. Since the community already has a tradition of blessing pets, it made sense to take the next step with a regular service.

The Blessing of the Animals in the fall coincides with the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi and his love of creatures great and small. Other area churches hold annual pet services, including Christ Church in Hamilton, which conducted its first Blessing of the Animals this past fall under the Rev. Patrick Gray.

In a statement, Keith-Lucas said Calvary's regular pet ministry is a first for the region, coinciding with a growing movement within the Episcopal Church to appreciate and bless animals.

The idea for the pet ministry came from church member Fran Weil, 63, a former entertainment writer and marketing communications specialist who owns three West Highland white terriers, Piper, 11, Paxton, 11/2, and Pippin, 5 months.

"Thea was amazing," Weil said of Keith-Lucas' reaction when she presented the idea. "She said, 'Let's do it.'"

The catalyst for Weil was having to euthanize another 11-year-old Westie named Preston on March 28 after he was diagnosed with bladder cancer.

That day coincided with Palm Sunday with Weil serving as an usher in the church. Keith-Lucas had added Weil's and Preston's names to a prayer list and that touched many in the community.

"We got such support from members of the community," Weil said. "I got a stack of condolence cards from people I could never imagine."

She got her new puppy, Pippin, from a breeder on Good Friday.

"They are just so pure in so many ways," Weil said about dogs. "You come home, and they are happy to see you. ... They are just a gift from God."

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673 or by e-mail at eforman@salemnews.com.

If you go

What: Perfect Paws Pet Ministry special worship service for canines and people

When: Sunday, May 16, 5 to 5:30 p.m., then every third Sunday of the month

Where: Calvary Episcopal Church, 46 Cherry St., in the Parish Hall (behind the red door on the corner of Holten and Cherry streets)

Who: People of all faiths and their well-mannered, leashed dogs are invited to participate.