St. Francis’ Blessings

Welcoming the whole flock
By Helen Neafsey, September 2009

Tango went to church all summer. My little black dog even had her own chair—and mostly she stayed on it, except during the sermons, when she would lie down on the cool floor to sleep. Reverend Molly McGreevy, assistant to the rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Stamford, Connecticut, had invited her to come, thinking that her small size and quiet manner would disturb no one.

Tango and I had first come to St. Francis for an exhibit of my photographs of the rescue of Sato dogs, strays that roam the streets of Puerto Rico. I had met Tango in the Puerto Rican Animal Welfare Shelter, where she sat in a crate with her puppies, and had fallen in love with her sad, soulful eyes. Since then, she and I have become inseparable. Naturally, she accompanied me to the exhibit at the church, where she was warmly welcomed by Rev. McGreevy, a lover of all creatures great and small.

For a while, Tango was the only dog to attend the regular Sunday service, and her docile behavior brought smiles to many faces in the congregation. The children flocked to pet her. She seemed to realize that this was a place were you were safe and loved.

Having a dog in church seemed like a good idea.

Soon a gentle Standard Poodle was coming too. And when a large, black and relatively quiet Labrador joined the congregation, the canine contingent was up to three. Everything was fine until one particular Sunday, when, during a service, someone sneezed. “That became a kind of allergy alert,” explained Rev. McGreevy. In addition, a few parishioners were worried that the dogs might get out of hand.

“Some parents,” McGreevy said, “were fearful that during the [church’s] coffee hour, with so many people, a child would pull a tail and a dog would nip.”

But McGreevy wasn’t ready to give up on the idea all together.

Along with rector Rev. Richard Mayberry and associate rector Rev. Mark Lingle, McGreevy came up with the idea of having a monthly service just for people and their pets. Communion would be offered to the humans, a blessing to their animal companions. When the new service began in November, it attracted a small but devoted congregation.

However, an article in the Wall Street Journal led people to believe that the dogs at St. Francis were receiving communion. The WSJ story was then gleefully picked up by the New York Post’s “Weird but True” column on March 12 (“You can say that St. Francis Episcopal Church in Connecticut has really gone to the dogs …”), as well as in an article entitled “All dogs go to heaven?” in the Boston Globe two days later, which practically had the animals trotting up to the altar to receive the host.

Even though the dogs and cats were only being blessed, not given communion, the church was besieged with calls. Episcopal bishops, irate fundamentalist church-goers, and television and radio stations all contacted the church to see what was going on. (One gentleman even declared St. Francis to be an urban legend.) The Wall Street Journal printed a retraction. Then, though they knew the original article had been mistaken, NBC and CNN made appointments to film the next pet-friendly service.

What all the publicity did was attract even more people to the church. Instead of the normal 10 to 12 congregants, between 75 and 80 people and their animal friends were in attendance on March 21.

The service did more than just fill the church.

As Rev. McGreevy looked out over the expanded congregation during the March animal blessing, she noticed that none of the people had worry lines on their faces. As she said later in a sermon, “They literally glowed with the light of the love that they had for their pets.” She observed that she had never before seen so much innocence gathered in one room.

McGreevy believes that it is important to honor the relationship, the great bond, between pets and people. “I saw it in the room that Sunday of the service. The people and their animals were just connecting. They were living in the present—which is where I know God lives.”

When Margaret Canada, a parishioner of 20 years, brought Katie to the service for the first time, the normally jumpy dog became serene and peaceful. “Katie, my Golden Retriever, is a love puppy,” she explained. “But when she sees people she gets very excited because she loves them so much.” Once in church, however, the dog seemed to sense something spiritual. As Canada said, “She just knew that this was a special moment and she was a completely different dog in that space.” Canada found the church to be a place of peace and love—as did her dog, who settled quietly in the front of the church.

Coming to that quiet, holy place was as good for the owners as it was for the dogs. People who had only nodded at each other in church or around town now spoke for the first time. Others came out feeling healed of their sadness. The morning after the March service, McGreevy, who had recently lost her husband, awoke with a sense of lightness that she had not felt before.

Even some of those who balked at the people/puppy services have been, well, converted.

After the latest animal service, several parishioners came up to Rev. McGreevy and Father Mayberry to say that they had been turned around. As at least one parishioner commented to Mayberry, “I’m glad that someone is doing this.”

“So maybe,” mused the rector, “we’re planting some seeds.”

And Tango, the shy dog who started all the fuss at the church, continues to blossom at St. Francis, greeting children and adults alike with a confident wag of her plumy tail.

Helen Neafsey is a photographer at Greenwich (Ct.) Time.