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3.10.2004

"All Dogs Go To Heaven" was just a movie 

Another one from the WSJ, but the content of this one is too inane not to print in its entirety:



Houses of Worship
Are Reaching Out To a Flock of Pets

Purr Box Goes to Communion At St. Francis Episcopal;
A Group 'Bark Mitzvah'

For the first time in 10 years, Mary Wilkinson went to church one Sunday in January. She sat in a back pew at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Stamford, Conn., flipping through a prayer book and listening intently to the priest's sermon.

What drew Ms. Wilkinson back into the fold was a new monthly program the church introduced -- Holy Communion for pets. As part of the service, the 59-year-old retired portfolio manager carried her 17-year-old tiger cat to the altar, waited in line behind three panting dogs to receive the host and had a special benediction performed for her cat, Purr Box Jr. "I like that the other parishioners are animal people," Ms. Wilkinson says.

With pews hard to fill, a small number of otherwise-traditional clergy are welcoming animals into the flock. Some are creating pet-friendly worship services, while others have started making house calls for sick animals. Some are starting to accompany pet owners to the vet when they euthanize a beloved pet. Occasionally, clergy are even officiating at pet funerals and group "bark mitzvahs." Congregants at temple Beth Shir Sholom, in Santa Monica, Calif., have an animal prayer sung to the tune of "Sabbath Prayer," a song from "Fiddler on the Roof": "May our God protect and defend you. May God always shield you from fleas."

All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has doubled attendance at its Sunday evening service since it began last summer to invite pets once a month. It wanted to attract people who walked their dogs on the church grounds. "We call it evangelism," says Rector Sherod Mallow. "It's opening your doors to the different needs of the community."

Pet services are aiming to draw in the elderly, many of whom rely on pets as their only companions, and people who have strayed from religion because it no longer seemed relevant. The effort is part of a larger movement among houses of worship to attract worshipers by offering amenities considered important to modern lives. In recent years, churches and synagogues have added everything from in-house Starbucks cafes and sports clubs to special worship services for children and singles.

Churches such as Manhattan's Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine have long held annual services to bless everything from rabbits to elephants. Catholics have long revered Saint Francis as a protector of animals.

Rabbi Isaac Jeret, of Temple Emanu-El, in Palm Beach, Fla., recently took that tradition to a new level when he began making house calls to ailing animals. Noticing the popularity of animal benedictions in churches, Rabbi Steven Fink of Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore organized a similar event for his own worshipers last May. More than 100 owners and their animals showed up, including guinea pigs and a king snake. "It touched people who saw the temple as not relevant to their lives," says the rabbi, who is planning a second pet blessing in May.

Helping the trend along: the $30 billion pet-products industry, which is marketing spirituality in new ways. After pet gravestones became one of its five most-requested products, Petco introduced memorial stones in 2002. Customer requests also prompted the company to start carrying kosher dog food and Hanukkah treats last year. Hallmark, which annually ships 500,000 pet sympathy cards, introduced several with spiritual imagery last year. One features a drawing of a little bear with wings and a halo flying up to heaven and the line "Such a sweet little soul could never be forgotten."

Skylight Paths just published a book called "What Animals Can Teach Us About Spirituality." "Peace to All Beings: Veggie Soup for the Chicken's Soul," (Lantern Books) contains prayers for all sorts of creatures, including insects. (One prayer: "Peace and compassion prevails on Earth for our tiny brothers and sisters everywhere.") Pet boutiques, such as Miami Beach's Dog Bar, carry plush toy dreidels, Stars of David and St. Christopher pendants for collars, and kosher pet food (production supervised by a rabbi).

For devout pet lover Kathleen Eickwort, of Ocala, Fla., these developments are welcome. When her dog, Sarge, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in June, she made religion a part of his treatment. In addition to chemotherapy, Sarge received a 20-minute visit from the rector of Ms. Eickwort's Episcopal church, who touched him and prayed for his recovery. Sarge also went to church twice. Now, his cancer is in remission. "There is no reason why prayer healing shouldn't work for animals," says Ms. Eickwort.

Last summer, a member of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Stamford began bringing her King Charles Spaniel on Sunday mornings; soon, several other attendees were regularly bringing their dogs. "They felt that they would be welcomed, because we have long had a blessing of the animals," says Frank Baker, the church's former treasurer.

Not everyone at St. Francis was happy to share the pews with furry creatures. One longtime congregant sent an e-mail to the church saying that his son-in-law suffered an allergy attack because of the animals. The parishioner, who won't allow his name to be used for fear of backlash from the "animal people," warned that dogs at the after-church coffee hour might bite children eating cookies.

In response to the concerns, the clergy created the monthly pet-friendly service, similar to the one at All Saints in Fort Lauderdale that they had read about in an Episcopal newspaper. "We thought we could bring people in," says the Rev. Mark Lingle.

The new service, introduced in November, is abbreviated, with readings tailored to animal lovers. At the recent service that Purr Box Jr. attended, Rev. Lingle read a psalm about a ram, prayed for "all creatures everywhere" and individually blessed each animal in attendance.

Oliver, a 7-month-old Clumber Spaniel, chewed through his leash and took off after a red cardinal he spotted outside the window while Enoki, an 8-year-old black cocker spaniel, growled. Rev. Lingle took the commotion in stride, grabbing a roll of paper towels and a bottle of Nature's Miracle after the service and inspecting the altar for drool while pets and their owners milled about. "For a lot of people, the relationships they have with their pets are central to their lives," he says. "They like to be in a place that recognizes and honors that."

Mary Wilkinson was happy that she had brought Purr Box Jr. in to be blessed for his digestive problems. Now, she says she plans to come back each month, rotating her 11 other cats.



Perhaps I'm cold-hearted, but I never saw the point in lavishing attention and affection upon creatures, much less treating them as spiritual beings, if their sole aims in life are to eat, sleep, expel waste, and reproduce. There's something a bit odd about these people who think the most important thing a church or synagogue can do for them is to bless their pets.

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