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Blessed Are the Animals
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Farm on the Moo-ve is only part of Green Chimneys’ mission to use animals to help children. Students too shy or lacking enough confidence in their skills to read aloud to a person often lose their shyness when reading to a Golden Retriever. Deborah Bernstein recalls how, when the school had two artic foxes, children with ADD who couldn’t sit still more than a few minutes would wait patiently in silence for half an hour to see the foxes creep out of their dens. “The positive behaviors they learn with animals move into their interactions with humans,” says Bernstein, whose daughter attends the school and has a close attachment to the Green Chimney’s pet rats.
 

The cathedral initiated the Blessing of the Animals in 1985. A few years earlier, they had commissioned artist-in-residence Paul Winter to write a modern ecclesiastical mass based on medieval traditions. The result was Missa Gaia, an environmentally inspired mass to the Earth. Winter had been mixing environmental sounds with jazz for years, but the Missa Gaia, which debuted at the cathedral in 1981, was radical in its vision of combining spirituality with environmental themes in a piece of Christian music.
 

Although the Episcopal Church does not formally recognize Francis as the patron saint of the environment, he plays that role for many, so the Feast of St. Francis seemed a natural time to perform the piece. Four years later, the cathedral added the Blessing of the Animals service, bringing an ancient tradition to a modern, pet-loving city.
 

“I remember at one point during a sermon” says Paul Winter, laughing. “The priest went, ‘And the Lord said…’ and there was a pause, and from the back came a big Woof!
 

The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine
1047 Amsterdam Avenue
New York, N.Y.
 

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 50: Sept/Oct 2008
Laurel Maury reviews for NPR and writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times Book Review; she lives in New York.

Photographs courtesy Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine; photo of man with dog by Kara Flannery.

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