Blessing of the Animals Oct. 6 at St. Andrew’s

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St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harriman will open its doors and grounds to the public next month for its fourth annual Blessing of the Animals.

The event will start at 2 p.m. Oct. 6 in the church at 190 Circle Drive in the West Hills area.

St. Andrew’s is joining churches across the country and around the world in this custom.

“It is a simple tradition, but it brings comfort to many,” said the Rev. Harry Howard, priest in charge at St. Andrew’s.

“Animals, in return, provide companionship and comfort to people, especially seniors and the disabled,” Howard said.

“They guard, guide, comfort and love us. Some offer their coats to keep us warm, their eggs and milk to sustain us, their presence to protect us, and songs to cheer us.”

Pets — everything from dogs and cats to hamsters and even horses — will line up for the blessing. Four-legged, two-legged, Episcopalian and other, furry, feathered and scaled are welcome to participate.

Light refreshments will be served for all pets and their caretakers.

Howard will preside at  the service, which will begin inside the church at about 2:30.

Candles will be lit and songs will be sung, then the guest animals will be taken back outside for the blessing.

“Usually, they are beautifully behaved, and few disagreements break out as the four-legged pilgrims await their blessing,” said Bob Thomas, a member of St. Andrew’s.

“The minister places his hands on the animal’s head and says a little prayer, asking the pet to be kept safe and healthy.”

Although this favorite traditional ceremony may be traced back to the 4th century when animals were first allowed into the church to be blessed, most now celebrate the event in early October on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, well-known to Christians for his love of animals.

It is said that St. Francis had a way of interacting and communicating with animals so that they were not frightened of him.

“He was a gentle, humble man who taught everyone to love the earth,” Thomas said. “His life exemplified harmony between humans and nature.”

In the 13th century, St. Francis established a Christian monastic order based on simplicity of life, service to humanity and deep respect for all of God’s creation, especially animals.

This philosophy led to the development of the custom of the blessing ceremony.

“We continue to do our best to measure up to the efforts by some others that have been doing this for a while, since it is an annual event,” Howard said.

Beginning in 1930, on Olivera Street in Los Angeles, for example, The Blessing of the Animals procession has grown into an all-day event with vendors and performers.

At the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, there is an annual procession of animals — anything from fish to an elephant, a yak, a tortoise, baby swans and a macaw — up the church steps and to the altar to be blessed there by the clergy.

At Duke University people gather annually with their cats, dogs and other pets at the University Chapel, where clergy members lay a hand on the head of each animal and say a prayer on its behalf.

“We are still working on some details but basically our plans include a combination blessing and pet adoption opportunity with local animal rescues: puppies, dogs, kittens, cats,” Howard said.

If an animal is unable to attend, photos or an article related to the pet may be brought to be blessed.

Each pet and caretaker will receive a memento of the blessing to take home.

Stop by St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church or call 882-1272 for more about the annual event.