As rain fell from the heavens, the Rev. William L. F. Gies stood on an Ellicott City sidewalk last night and led his congregation in the blessing of furry, four-legged creatures. On the annual feast day of St. Francisimals.
Standing under an awning at the Enchanted Forest Shopping Center, the minister from Trinity Lutheran Church, interrupted at times by two barking dogs, read a chapter from Genesis that told of "the Lord creating the creatures on the earth."
He asked the 12 members of his congregation to place their hands on their pets or stuffed animals and pray with him:
"Hear our humble prayer, oh God we pray especially for those who are suffering in any way, for the overworked and underfed, the hunted, the lost, those in captivity or ill-treated, and for those that must be put to death."
With Ernie, his raucous mixed Labrador retriever, Bob Brackbill attended his first pet blessing ceremony. "I think it's a little light-hearted ceremony, which has potential to reach out to the community," Mr. Brackbill said.
"Last time I did this a Doberman pinscher almost ate a cat," Mr. Gies joked before the ceremony.
"You could perform a blessing and a funeral at the same time," responded Joyce Tillbery, who brought [See Pets, 6B] her golden retriever Allie to be blessed.
Mr. Gies' family dog, a mutt named Katy, also was blessed. He thought it was best to leave the tropical fish home.
The ceremony was held to gain publicity for his 30-member church and to provide some fun for the pet lovers in his congregation, Mr. Gies said.
"It's kind of whimsical," he said. "The Christian faith doesn't have to be a drag. It can be a little bit of fun."
When the minister first told his congregation of the traditional Catholic ceremony, they thought "it was kind of crazy, but that's OK," he said. "It's done in other places and has been done in more outrageous fashion."
One year, a church in New York had elephants. "That's pretty funky," Mr. Gies said.
Though St. Francis is rooted in the Roman Catholic Church, Mr. Gies said, "He's part of our church, too."
Born the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in 1181, St. Francis was a former soldier who chose a life of poverty and founded the Franciscan order. In 1979, he was declared the patron saint of ecologists.
"Legends speak about St. Francis having a supernatural ability to communicate with animals," Mr. Gies said, adding that he even preached sermons to birds.
One story tells how he "had a heart-to-heart talk" with a wolf that terrorized the people in a little town in northern Italy. "After that, the wolf never terrorized the town. He became the protector," said the Rev. John F. "Jack" Kinsella, pastor of St. Francis Assisi Mission, which has a parish office in Fulton.
Beasts and animals are referred to throughout the Bible.
Until the 17th century in England, church-goers brought their dogs to church, said Stephen H. Webb, an associate professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College in Indiana. But that practice ended probably because they barked too much, fought with other dogs or "people paid too much time playing with dogs and not listening to the sermon."