Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis
Blessing of the Animals
...and God charged Adam and Eve to be stewards and caretakers over all creation…
They start lining up early… hours before the doors open for the annual Feast of Saint Francis and the Blessing of the Animals. They come by the hundreds… on foot, by car, subway or by the busload, to stand patiently in line along the fenced in garden called “the close”. They stare intently at the stunning Peace Fountain sculptured by Cathedral Artist-in-Residence Greg Wyatt, whose work has been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as academic campuses throughout the 50 states. Created in 1985 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Diocese of New York, the 40 foot high sculpture immortalizes in bronze, the conflict between good and evil; hence the intent focus to unlock the enigma of all that symbolism.
Afterwards, in the line the people are high-energy; they chat with their neighbors, admire the pets they brought to be blessed (mainly dogs but also cats, rabbits and birds) with an air of excitement and anticipation that flows into goodwill for those around them. It is a pleasure to be a part of this good-natured group.
The Procession and Blessing of Animals is held annually at the 120 year old Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine on Manhattan’s upper west side, at a natural high point of the island called Morningside Heights. The elevation adds height to the impressive building, regardless of the fact that it remains unfinished; it is still considered the largest cathedral in the world. This amazing cathedral is chartered as a house of prayer for all people from many faiths and communities. For those unfamiliar with the church and its history one only has to stand in front of its soaring spires and gothic arches to know that this is a special place regardless of your religious affiliation. The Cathedral and its grounds occupy over 11 acres of land and include the building and a garden with the above referenced sculpture, surrounded by trees and flowers and small animals that enjoy freedom to wander including a pair of resident iridescent-blue peacocks.
The Blessing of the Animals is a popular and well attended event which showcases multicultural music and dance as well as the parade of animals. Once the doors were opened and people and their pets have settled in, a rousing choral prelude sung by Theresa Thomason and the Cathedral Choir opens the program and rocks the huge space. An energetic dance performed by the Forces of Nature Dance Theatre follows, after which the Cathedral Clergy, bedecked in all their finery, slowly walks down the central aisle partially obscured by a halo of incense.
There were brief readings from Genesis, the Bible and the Holy Quran and a moving sermon offered by The Right Reverend Clifton Daniel III, about Saint Frances and his probable disappointment with the 21st century. Saint Francis was born to a life of privilege and luxury but became Patron Saint of beggars, poor people and animals. He was a church reformer that challenged the status quo and founded the Franciscan Order to right the wrongs he saw. He was called the Patron Saint of animals but his true message was charity and compassion for all of God’s creatures (including people). How we have failed his message… so little has changed; the have’s still rule over and have little compassion for the have not’s. The missive ended with a plea to follow Frances’ teachings and be good and kind to all.
There was more music, singing and dancing until finally the big event… the parade of animals provided by Dawn Animal Agency from Westtown, NY that provides heaven for rescue animals of all sorts.
Each animal was led or carried in by a handler dressed in a white cassock in the order from the largest to the smallest; first birds of prey, followed by a camel, cow, donkey, llama, miniature horse, sheep, goats, skunk, fox, coatimundi (raccoon), bearded dragon, chameleon, swan, turkey, tortoise, chickens, rabbits, ducks, rats, guinea pig and least we forget, the hot pink chicken named Lady GaGa.
Following behind was a gentleman pushing a wheelbarrow covered in flowers and an aid carrying a shovel to take care of the necessary gifts from the animals. The animals participating in the parade were blessed en masse at the altar and once they paraded out and the cathedral was vacated, individual animal blessings were offered in “the close” to all those who brought their family pets. Opportunities for rescue pet adoptions were also offered after the festivities by The Animal Sanctuary, the rescue and rehabilitation arm of Dawn Animal Agency.
For information regarding this program and all the many other community minded services offered at the Cathedral either stop by at 1047 Amsterdam Avenue, New York City, call 212-316-7540 or visit www.stjohndivine.org
Dawn Animal Agency: dawnanimalagency.com or call 212-575-9396
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