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A Beastly Blessing: St. Francis Day at Manhattan’s St. John the Divine

article-imageA curious gathering on the steps of St. John the Divine for the annual Blessing of the Animals (all photographs by Allison Meier)

Every year, in celebration of St. Francis Day, Morningside Heights’ Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine opens its ornate doors to a parade of creatures great and small in a ceremony known as the Blessing of the Animals. I’ve been dying to go ever since I first moved to New York six years ago, and as the relatively new and exceedingly proud parent of a seven-month old rescue pup named Teddy, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to represent the Obscura Society at this year’s festivities, Teddy in tow.

article-imageTeddy and I at the cathedral doors

article-imageHumans and animals alike quietly waiting for the service to begin

St. John the Divine is a massive, stunning, Gothic Revival cathedral whose construction began in 1892 and still remains a work in progress. Its grandeur makes for a dramatic setting for the motley assortment of animals that hop and trot their way down the church aisle. This year a camel, a yak, a python, a fennec fox, and a kangaroo were just a small sampling of the animals who showed up to receive the priest’s blessing along with my Ted. The public also lined up to attend, filling the pews with a wide variety of New Yorkers and an impressively diverse range of their furry and feathered companions.

article-imageSome of the more unusual guests arrive

The spectacle and following festivities are held in honor of St. Francis, an Italian friar who lived from 1181 to 1226 and had a great love for nature. St. Francis is said to have preached compassion for animals, encouraging his followers to be good stewards to the earth, and later was heralded as the patron saint for animals and the environment. Some of the most beloved stories involving St. Francis come from the Fioretti — or Little Flowers — an Italian collection of stories and folklore that arose following his death. In the Fioretti, St. Francis is depicted as preaching sermons to the forest animals and successfully reasoning with a man-eating wolf to end his reign of terror on the town of Gubbio. 

article-imageA motley crew gathers on the church steps

This year, the service at St. John the Divine’s celebration of St. Francis Day didn’t so much focus on the saint himself as it did on emphasizing a need for harmony and compassion in today’s world. Social reformer and animal rights advocate (and notable embalmed auto-icon) Jeremy Bentham was quoted, as were Madeline Albright and Martin Luther King, Jr. In between the readings and psalms, long-time artist-in-residence and ecological jazz musician Paul Winter’s compositions were featured along with elaborate choreography. Winter has been a well-known environmental activist and animal-rights advocate dating back to the 1970s when he joined a three-day Greenpeace anti-whaling expedition, playing saxophone for gray whales off the coast of Vancouver and garnering a fair amount of attention.

The pieces performed at this year’s Blessing of the Animals utilized recordings of wolves, whales, and African elephants, along with the singing of the church choir and the Paul Winter Consort jazz band. The various animal companions that were scattered amongst the church pews interjected their own vocalizations periodically during the mass, but for the most part even the largest and most unusual of the ceremony’s guests were remarkably well-behaved.

article-imageAn undeniably impressive yak stares down our camera, and no, he will not go down the steps

While St. John the Divine is only one of many congregations to hold an annual Blessing of the Animals, it is certainly amongst the largest and the most grandiose. Following the two hour mass, the animals were slowly processed back down the church steps, causing passersby to stop and stare. The festival that followed rounded out the day with a petting zoo, several featured rescue organizations, and a chance for those in attendance to have their own animals blessed. As for my own little Obscura Society mascot, Teddy wiggled and squirmed through a blessing before happily returning to the lawn to roll his freshly-blessed puppy body in the muddiest portions of the grass. Still, I’m pretty sure that on some level he appreciated the extra acknowledgement of his greatness and had to approve of all the grandeur of the day.

article-imageTeddy taking a moment to reflect on the events of the day

Here are more photographs from this past Sunday’s Blessing of the Animals at St. John the Divine: 

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Blessing of the Animals at St. John the Divine in Manhattan was held this year on October 6.