CANANDAIGUA — Long lines of excited students streamed from St. Mary’s School shortly before 9:30 a.m. Oct. 4 and headed for the sunlit lawn next to the church. Meanwhile, parents — many of them bearing cat carriers or grasping the ends of dog leashes — joined their children, and within minutes the lawn was filled and students had formed tight clusters surrounding each animal and owner.
Dogs strained at the ends of their leashes and sniffed everything in sight while cats ventured shyly out of their carriers, gazing up at the small faces peering down at them. Several children ran around the lawn, checking out each animal and exclaiming over their findings.
“It’s a wiener dog,” one particularly excited boy yelled joyfully as a dog and its owner walked up to the semi-chaotic scene.
The children, parents, cats, dogs and rabbits had gathered for the school’s annual blessing of the pets, which has been held for at least the past six years, said Father Thomas Mull, pastor of St. Mary’s Parish. The blessing is always popular and usually attracts quite a number of animals. Last year someone even brought a horse, and someone else had planned to bring a goat this year but wasn’t able to attend the blessing after all, Father Mull said.
Pet blessings are usually held on or near Oct. 4, which is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis was born at Assisi in Umbria, Italy, in 1181 and is well-known for living among the animals he loved and for ministering to the poor. He founded the Franciscan Order in 1209 and died in 1226.
Pet blessings have become more popular in recent years, Father Mull said, with more than two dozen diocesan parishes and schools offering them last year. This rise in popularity can probably be traced to several different factors, Father Mull said.
“We’re all more environmentally conscious. St. Francis is getting more popular,” he said, noting that he’s seen a lot of outdoor St. Francis statues at homes in the area and people have shown an interest in learning more about the saint’s lifestyle.
The humans and animals at the school’s pet blessing eventually calmed down enough to form a wide circle around Father Mull, who offered a few words of blessing before walking around the circle and sprinkling the animals with holy water.
Although he hadn’t been able to bring his cat and fish to the blessing, eighth-grader Nick Gallagher was glad some of the holy water had landed on the photographs he’d brought of the animals.
“They’re blessed,” he said.
Nick said his cat had come to the blessing in previous years and enjoyed it because it likes to be pet.
The reasons other students gave for bringing their pets to the blessing were as varied as the pets themselves. Second-grader Emily Neubecker wanted to bring her dog, Becca, because Becca is very special to her, she said. Fourth-grader Ben Korpiel wanted to show off Speckle, his large black-and-white rabbit.
“I know she’s a very intelligent rabbit, and I think the class and the school should see her,” Ben said as he held Speckle. Ben’s classmates were impressed not only by Speckle’s intelligence, but also her by amazing shedding abilities. By the time the blessing concluded, Ben’s shirt and arms were covered with black and white rabbit fur.
Standing nearby, Ben’s father held another furry member of the Korpiel household. Slash the cat was nervous but had been well-behaved during the blessing, David Korpiel said.
Nancy McCarthy brought to the blessing her family’s orange tabby cat, Junior, as a surprise for her son, Robbie, who is in the fourth grade. Both Junior and Robbie seemed surprised, although Robbie may have been a bit more excited about the visit than Junior.
“He’s an indoor cat. Actually this is the first time he’s ever been outside,” McCarthy said as Junior huddled near the back of his carrier.
After clinging to Robbie’s shoulder during the blessing, Junior seemed to become more comfortable with his outdoor surroundings and went for a walk around the yard while Robbie kept a firm grip on his leash and followed closely behind.
Eighth-grader Brendan Smith brought to the blessing his sheltie, Kelly, because this is his last year at St. Mary’s. Ann and Kathrine Erdle — who are in the fourth and fifth grade, respectively, — brought their 4-month-old kitten, Buddy.
“We found him when he was three days old, and we’ve been raising him ever since. He had a sister, and we lost her, so we’re very blessed that he’s still around,” said the girls’ mother, Lauri.
St. Mary’s parishioner Sharon Henry brings her 8-year-old dachshund, Liesel, to the blessing each year. Liesel doesn’t like to be sprinkled with the holy water, Henry said, but luckily there’s usually a wall of children between her and Father Mull, so she doesn’t get very wet. The students usually recognize Liesel and look forward to seeing her each year, Henry added.
Fourth-grader Angela Mowry brought her cat, Fluffy, to last year’s blessing, but left her at home this year.
“My cat didn’t like all the dogs. My cat is afraid of dogs,” she said.
Angela said she nonetheless enjoyed this year’s blessing and took advantage of the opportunity to visit with her classmates’ pets.
The students always look forward to the blessing whether or not they have pets, Father Mull said.
“It’ll take them two hours to get calmed down now,” he said with a laugh as the students began heading back to their classrooms.