Why do we love our pets?
Heavy thinkers as different as Shakespeare, Voltaire and the Dalai Lama have attempted answers. But in the days around Oct. 4, some pet-lovers go a step further by marking World Animal Day and the feast of St. Francis of Assisi -- the patron saint of animals -- with ceremonies called the Blessing of the Animals.
Last weekend, members of Flourtown’s St. Miriam Parish and Friary held their version of the tradition in the congregation’s Angels of Assisi Pet Memorial Garden. The peaceful green stretch, part of historic Union Cemetery, was also the setting for interment rites for several pets. Among the deceased is Tucker, the 12-year-old golden retriever who’d been part of the St. Miriam family, a Franciscan, Old Catholic parish community, since its establishment in Philadelphia in 2008.
At press time, members of Conshohocken United Methodist Church were prepping for their own Blessing of the Animals, scheduled for Oct. 13 at 5 p.m. on the church’s front lawn. The event was spearheaded by new CUMC Pastor Tim Duchesne and is open to the public. Duchesne has led similar gatherings at previous pastoral postings, most recently at Berwyn United Methodist Church.
“Our pets really do become part of us,” said Duchesne, whose family includes a Pomeranian named Remi and a Siamese cat named Baby Boy. “It’s well-documented how important they can be for emotional health and comfort. They give so much and, really, expect very little from us. I’m new in town, but I’ve already seen a lot of people walking their dogs, so I’m hoping we get a lot of people out for this.”
CUMC member Anna Hoffman spent part of her week baking homemade pet treats for the CUMC event. The goodies were inspired by her family’s late Newfoundland, Teddy.
“We had Teddy for (nearly 15) years,” Hoffman said. “We got him when he was nine-weeks-old, and we lost him a little over a year ago. We really miss him. They capture your heart and become part of the family. I do a lot of baking, so it seemed like a natural thing to do for Teddy -- making him a treat that would keep him healthy. They have oats and peanut butter, a little flour, some vanilla, but no sugar or fat. Teddy loved them.”
CUMC’s Blessing of the Animals is also being supported by volunteers from the Conshohocken Dog Park.
St. Miriam’s pastor Monsignor Jim St. George wonders whether a onetime personal blog entry captures the essence of the human-pet relationship.
“I once wrote, my goal in life is to be the kind of man my dog thinks I am,” he said. “Tucker loved me despite all of my flaws and shortcomings. Life can be hard, but when you come home at the end of a long, hard day … well, the way Tucker greeted me, the way he showed how happy he was to see me, that’s love incarnate.
“The relationship we have with our pets -- the way we communicate with them -- is unique and much different from the way we communicate with other humans. St. Francis called animals his little brothers and sisters. I think of the loyalty and love of our pets as (akin to) the unconditional love of God in a form we can feel. Tucker was only six-weeks-old when we got him, so we’ve never known St. Miriam without him. His passing impacted all of us.
“The sadness of any creature is, they live a finite amount of time. The average lifespan of animals is much shorter than ours, but in the time they have, they inspire us to be better people. In return, we have to care for them and keep them safe. But in the end, I think it’s a win-win for both sides.”
A second golden retriever named Friar and a mixed goldendoodle-French bulldog named Rory shared quarters with Tucker at the St. Miriam friary, and St. George said the parish hopes to acquire a golden retriever newborn from Tucker and Friar’s breeder.
“No question, these dogs are part of the parish family,” St. George said. “They’re there at every St. Miriam event and at our (preschool and kindergarten) interacting with the kids. The second Sunday of every month, we have a healing mass, and they’re right there in case anyone needs to hug a (therapy dog).”
St. George said the Flourtown congregation is the only one he knows of with on-site provisions for pet burial. The tranquil Angels of Assisi Pet Memorial Garden contains a walkway and reflection site as well as a special Honor Garden section for service and military animals.
St. Miriam parish is located at 654 Bethlehem Pike, Flourtown. Additional information is available at 215-836-9800 and www.mysaintmiriam.org. Conshohocken United Methodist Church is located on Fayette Street at West Sixth Avenue. Additional information is available at 610-828-1250 and www.conshyunited.com.