A camel tests the tastiness of his plastic wreaths

New Yorkers will stand on line for many things, but lining up to get into church on a Sunday morning isn’t usually one of them. However, for the hundreds of people lined up outside the cathedral of St John the Divine in Morningside Heights this past Sunday, the wait was worth it. Every year, the cathedral hosts a special celebration in honor of the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi on the first Sunday of October – the Blessing of the Animals. In honor of St. Francis, patron saint of animals, two-legged guests aren’t the only ones welcome in the sanctuary: the public is invited to bring their beloved, (well-behaved) pets as well.

A pair of alpacas make their debut in the procession

The event, celebrating its 32nd year, also features a special mass, the Missa Gaia (Earth Mass) composed by Paul Winter and Paul Halley, and includes a choir of hundreds, African dancers, stilt walkers, and puppets. But the event’s enduring appeal probably stems from the charismatic assortment of cats and dogs who sit patiently with their owners during the ceremony.

A family relaxes with their dog

Hillary Browne, who has been attending the service for the last three years, brought her new dog, an 8-month old Chihuahua-Maltese mix called Harvey Noodles, to the service for the first time. Another faithful attendee, Mervyn Horst, has attended the service with his cat Carmelo for almost fifteen years. When Carmelo gets restless on his lap, Horst allows the leashed cat to perch on the base of one of the cathedral’s many stone columns to observe his unusual surroundings.

A Labradoodle enjoys the festivities.

The feast day’s crowning touch is a silent Procession of Animals down the Cathedral’s central aisle. This year, the procession included a large black-and-white cow, a donkey, a camel, a large tortoise, several goats, a pair of alpacas, and an assortment of other creatures great and small, bedecked in (plastic) wreaths of greenery and red carnations. The processional animals all come from The Sanctuary for Animals, an animal rescue charity. Amanda Brook, a third-generation rescuer, said that the charity started with her great-grandmother, who rescued a cheetah and a horse in the 1950s, and “it grew from there. Now we have over five hundred animals, from rats to an elephant.”

A dog enjoys the day

The Sanctuary for Animals has been participating in the cathedral’s festivities for the last twenty years. All the animals that take part in the procession are rescues, and about 10% of them also participate in movies and commercials through their sister company, the Dawn Animal Agency, which helps pay for hay, vet bills, and medications for the entire sanctuary population. Ted, the processional donkey, will next appear on stage in Radio City Hall’s nativity scene.

A camel and a cow wait for their cue

Camel and a swan in the sanctuary

A parrot waits for the ceremony to start

Dancers in the sanctuary

Once the last animal had left the cathedral, everyone was invited to gather outside for a street festival featuring music, children’s programming, and special pet blessing ceremonies on the Pulpit Green. A number of the cathedral’s clergy stood on the lawn in their white robes beside specially marked “blessings stations.”

Che the Havanese receives his blessing

Altagracia Perez-Bullard, St. John the Divine’s Canon for Congregational Vitality, served as animal clergy for the first time this year. She composed her own blessing, which emphasized God’s continual love for all animals, and offered thanksgiving to pets for the unconditional love they give their human companions. Bill Askins, who brought his Havanese, Che, to be blessed, said that he found the experience quite moving. Che, who visibly relaxed in the hands of the priest blessing him, might have agreed.

Next, read about the Top 10 Secrets of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.