By JESSE ROMAN
DANVERS — The Rev. Thea Keith-Lucas began last night's service at Calvary Episcopal Church in Danvers with an important public service announcement.
"Don't be afraid if your friend needs to walk around or talk during the service," she told the two dozen-or-so people and their canine friends.
On cue, in walked Addy, a Chinese crested powderpuff, with her owner, Lis Carey of Lawrence. Instantly, the room erupted in a chorus of barks, as suddenly-alert mutts looked around, angling to get a good glimpse or sniff of the late arrival. When order was restored, Keith-Lucas resumed.
During the course of the 45-minute service, prayers were said, hymns were sung, and blessings were given to each and every furry friend whose owner wanted it.
The service, part of the Perfect Paws Pet Ministry at the church, has been a once-a-month occurrence since May, when people were first invited to bring their dogs. In September, the church began allowing pets of all kinds to attend, and the people — and animals — have come in droves.
"We said we'd give it a try in May, and here we are in November," Keith-Lucas said. "It just keeps growing in the community and in depth of experience."
"This is a first in the country as far as I know," said Fran Weil, the pet chaplain, and the woman who came to Keith-Lucas with the idea of starting a pet ministry. "It was a classic example of what-if. What if we extend services to animals? Some people come to church because of their animals; that's how they found God. ...
"People have a need to know that their animals mean something and might have a soul," Weil said. "We celebrate these creatures that God has created and firmly believe God has a place for them in heaven."
This kind of service "is very needed. People need to take the time to appreciate their pet; they're a part of our life," said Marge Cacciola of Beverly, who brought her wheaten terrier, Samson. "He's a member of the family. They all have souls, as we do."
Some were there to receive blessings they hoped would heal old wounds and foster new beginnings.
"God, we ask that you heal her body and mind. We ask that you help her enjoy her new family," Keith-Lucas said as she blessed Nibbles, a large German shepherd who was injured while helping her country fight the Iraq war. Nibbles was a bomb-sniffing dog, and one day an explosive detonated, sending shrapnel into her chest. Her life was spared and she was adopted, almost exactly a year ago, by Linda and Len Bruyette of Middleton.
"I brought her here to get a blessing, to maybe give her some advantage for a change," Linda Bruyette said. "She's had a hard life. She's been a service dog and never had a family. She's been used like a commodity, but she's more than that. She's no longer a commodity; she's our friend."
Debbie and Don Mailloix drove almost an hour from Rockland, Mass., to receive blessings for Ethel and Lucy, Yorkshire terriers they adopted last week from a puppy mill in Pennsylvania. The dogs were bred continuously, without rest, their whole lives, they said, until the couple rescued them. They learned about the Pet Ministry when their Yorkie, named Bella, died in August and their home church refused to hold a service.
"They said pets don't have souls and don't go to heaven," Don Mailloix said. So they called Weil, who drove to Rockland to officiate at a memorial service.
"It's amazing what she did for us. She called constantly and still does to make sure we're all right," Debbie said.
"There is really no one around that can comfort you," Don said, when a cherished pet dies. "But when you lose a pet, it's like losing a member of your family."
Humans clearly found comfort in the service last night, but it remains a mystery what the dogs think. They did seem to settle down, and even to relax a bit, once the service got under way. But do they know what's going on?
"Of course not," said Sally Simmers, who brought her Kerry blue terriers, Molly and Seamus.
"They understand there is a treat at the end, and they love seeing the other dogs. Every time we pull up to the church, they can't wait to get out of the car."
Judging by the wagging of tails, both large and small, it seemed that just about all of the dogs at Calvary Episcopal Church last night would agree.