The sound of restless dogs whining and howling is one of the last things expected in a church. However, the tiny congregation of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church at 163 Main St. was not surprised by the noise las Sunday.
The weekend’s ceremony was held in honor of St. Francis, an annual event that many in the parish look forward to because the service honors animals with a blessing of pets.
“It’s OK if dogs make noise,” said Rev. Gwyneth Murphy at the beginning of the 10:30 a.m. service.“That’s what St. Francis Sunday is all about.”
For Murphy, who has been the vicar of St. Andrew’s for five years, as well as the leader of Campus Ministry at SUNY New Paltz, this is anything but unusual. Murphy, or “Rev. G” as she is sometimes referred to, has been performing pet blessings for almost 20 years.
In those years, she has blessed hundreds of pets. This includes photographs of pets and even the ashes of a pet on one occasion. On this particular day, more than one person, (mainly small children) brought stuffed animals representing their pet they wanted blessed.
“Some kids, for whatever reason, cannot have pets. But there is a reason they have stuffed animals and not something else. It’s important to them,”Murphy said.
In her sermon, Murphy spoke about “restorative justice” and strengthening the connection with all of creation, including pets. After the blessing, she spoke about why it was important for this to take place.
“There’s a much deeper theological question of why do we bless anything if we know that everything is blessed to begin with?” Murphy said. “But this represents our belief that God is present in all things. It reminds us of the sanctity of life, and acknowledges their [our pets] importance.”
Eileen Banyra, a member of the congregation for a year and a half, appreciated the pet blessing because it paid respect to all creatures. This included her daughter’s pet snake, which was the animal in attendance that turned the most heads.
After the service, Kappa Waugh, once a librarian in New Paltz and at Vassar College and a member of St. Andrews since 1971, sat across from her husband Bob Waugh, who has been teaching at SUNY New Paltz since 1968.
The two discussed the most exotic and unusual animals that they’ve seen at pet blessings and concluded that seeing a llama blessed at the Cathedral in New York City was the most notable.
But beyond all the conversation about odd and exciting scenes from other blessings and churches, the people of St. Andrew’s said they love this day because it brings them together in a way that few other days can.
“It’s important because it’s fun,” Waugh said. “I think churches need to be fun.”