Beliefnet
The Deacon's Bench

The Blessing of the Animals is not uncommon around the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, in October. But in the city named for the saint, they didn’t want to wait for the fall:

If Ursula could talk, she’d probably tell you she hath forsaken tennis shoes for Jesus.

Resting obediently on the floor of St. Francis of Assisi in North Beach, the 5-year-old Bernese mountain dog had clearly achieved inner peace. No barking. No eating footwear. No chasing the 50 or so other dogs and two cats that made pilgrimages to St. Francis for the annual pet blessing.

Ursula’s spiritual serenity is what her owners were desperately hoping for.

“We brought her here last year for a blessing, but it didn’t take,” said Ursula’s owner, Theresa Oda of San Francisco. “We thought another blessing would do her good.”

Clad in flowing golden robes, Deacon Charles McNeil read from Genesis and then sprinkled holy water on the drooling, panting worshipers. Some barked. Others sniffed their fellow supplicants. A German shepherd shook his head, spraying his neighbors with holy water.

The event, in its 15th or so year, was a highlight of the North Beach Festival, which continues today. In addition to bringing pets to church, festivalgoers could watch artists draw chalk masterpieces on Vallejo Street, eat Italian sausages, and drink beer at Washington Square.

Another dog in need of spiritual serenity Saturday was Alex, a rambunctious pit bull mix who was recently neutered.

“He wasn’t too happy about it. His voice changed,” said his owner, Fernando Arocha of San Francisco. “Is he Catholic? He will be after today.”

After blessing the dogs and cats, McNeil said a prayer for those that had ascended to pet heaven in the past year. The prayer reminded him of his beloved childhood Chihuahua mix, Corky.

“Corky loved carrots, and he loved people,” McNeil said after the ceremony ended. “He’d sneak out every day and go to the McDonald’s on Ocean Avenue. He was the smartest dog I ever knew.”

McNeil said the annual pet blessing is a chance for pet owners to take the love they feel toward Rover and Snowball and extend it toward humanity at large. People should feel as much compassion for homeless people in the Tenderloin as they feel for homeless puppies at the SPCA, he said.

“People always think of St. Francis preaching to the birds,” he said. “But he didn’t just have a love of animals. It went beyond that. My hope is that somehow the people here today carry that same sense of respect out into the world.”

The message was not lost on Emma, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel in a glittery pink T-shirt reading “Flirt.” Emma was the embodiment of good behavior during the 30-minute ceremony.

“I brought her here because she’s one of God’s creatures,” said Emma’s owner, Victoria McDonnell of San Francisco. “Although she’s a Unitarian.”

There’s more at the link, along with more pictures.

PHOTO: Seamus (center) and his owner, Sheila Ryan, are blessed by Deacon Charles McNeil at Saturday’s North Beach annual street festival, which includes animal blessings at St. Francis Church. (Photo by Frederic Larson / The Chronicle)

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