VICTOR — By 9:50 a.m. Oct. 6, more than a dozen dogs and twice as many humans were already gathered outside the parish center at St. Patrick Parish, where a pet blessing was scheduled to take place in 10 minutes.
As the hour of the blessing drew nearer, young children and senior citizens alike hurried to unload their beloved dogs, cats, hamsters and fish from cars, trucks and minivans. Still more owners walked their dogs through the parking lot toward the parish center while their dogs barked excitedly, announcing their arrival to the canines already gathered.
By the time the blessing began, there were more than 60 people in the crowd, which also contained 22 dogs, three cats, two hamsters and a handful of fish.
“The animal kingdom was well-represented,” Father Tim Niven, pastor, remarked after the blessing.
The event marked Father Niven’s first pet blessing. Although St. Patrick Parish used to have an annual pet blessing many years ago, the Oct. 6 blessing was referred to as the parish’s first-annual pet blessing because it’s the first one that’s been held since Father Niven became pastor in 2003, said Sue Stehling, chair of the parish’s liturgy committee.
The liturgy committee planned the blessing for Oct. 6 — two days after the feast of St. Francis of Assisi — to honor the saint, who loved all of God’s creatures and especially the animals, Stehling noted. St. Francis is certainly not alone in this love of animals, Father Niven said at the beginning of the blessing.
“Pets certainly play a special role in our lives. They bring us comfort and companionship,” he said. “They have been part of God’s plan. We have so many references to animals in Scripture.”
Animals, especially doves, sheep and lambs, are often featured prominently in stories from Scripture, where the dove is often a symbol of peace, Jesus is referred to as the lamb of God, and his followers are referred to as the sheep in his flock. The story of creation recounted in Genesis — which Deacon Peter Niche read during the blessing — shows humans how God wants them to interact with his other creations, Father Niven said.
“This reading really points out that … all that was created before is for us to be stewards of. What we are given, we are given to share. We share our love with our pets, and in turn they share their love with us,” he said.
Many Catholics worry that the deep bonds they’ve forged with their pets will be broken by death, Father Niven said.
“We’re always asked, ‘Will our pets be with us in heaven?’ and the answer is yes. Jesus Christ came to renew and recreate the entire universe, us first of all, but ultimately all creation with us,” Father Niven said.
After praying for the intercessions of St. Francis and asking God’s blessings upon the animals, Father Niven and Deacon Niche made their way through the crowd, sprinkling holy water on the animals and people as they went.
“Any blessing of an object or an animal is really a blessing of the people who use them or live with them,” Father Niven said. “I invite you to make the sign of the cross when you or your pets are sprinkled with holy water.”
When the last animals had been blessed, the humans in the crowd sang a closing hymn while many of the dogs lay panting in the shade of their owners’ shadows or sniffing each others’ noses. Afterwards, some of the dogs continued to get to know each other while their owners enjoyed a light snack of apple juice and animal crackers.
“We are thrilled that our parish started to do this,” noted Meg McGuckin, who was there with her husband, Tim, and Daisy, the couple’s 5-year-old West Highland Terrier.
“I think it teaches a wonderful lesson for the children, especially those who are caregivers for their pets, that their lives are valuable,” Meg said.
Fellow parishioner Mary Grace Wuillaume agreed. Wuillaume’s family brought their cat, Minette — which means Miss Kitty in French — and their three fish, Kate, Fabio and Goldy.
“We just thought it was a nice idea. Our pets are part of our family,” Wuillaume said.
Julie and Steve Pfeiffer of Shortsville decided to attend the pet blessing partly because it fit easily into their schedule. After the blessing the Pfeiffers and their two rottweilers, Merlin and Piper, headed over to the Humane Society at Lollypop Farm in Fairport for Barktober Fest, an annual walk-a-thon and race fundraiser. Merlin and Piper were two of the largest dogs at the blessing but were well-behaved, although Julie noted they can sometimes be mischievous.
“God knows they need the blessings,” she said.
Parishioners Erin and Kylie Hart shared the same sentiments about their 12-year-old Lasa Poo, Zooey.
“She just needed to be blessed,” Erin said.
Father Niven said he’d never done a pet blessing before, but he thoroughly enjoyed his first experience and hopes it will become an annual event.
“It’s a great way to start bringing people in. I saw people from outside the parish here,” Father Niven said.
Besides, he added with a grin, “Francis is my favorite saint, but don’t tell St. Patrick.”