Eighteen children begin singing the opening hymn as they enter the church. The congregation quiets as the choir reaches the altar and finishes its last notes. A hush falls over the church. A loud "Yip!" ricochets through the air. After the giggles subside, the minister begins the Blessing of the Animals with a prayer. More than 100 dogs, a few cats and at least one turtle appear to be comfortable, if not particularly attentive, sitting in the rows of stately pews in the majestic Grace Episcopal Church. The short service, which coincides with the Feast of St. Francis, is accompanied with whines, sniffs and the thumping of tails against the pews. When the animals are brought up front to be blessed, surprisingly, there are no fights. Someone whispers, "It's because they know they are in church." In the front, the Revs. Donald Armstrong and Theron Walker bless each animal by name and then give each of them a pat on the head. Some present the men of cloth with a slobbery kiss. Afterward, in the garden, members of the human congregation reminisce past Blessings of the Animals services -- "Remember when so-and-so brought her two hedgehogs?" -- and marvel about how everyone has been so well behaved. Saint Francis, the patron saint of animals, is probably proud.
--Gina Schaarschmidt photo by Sean Cayton