By Neva Rae Fox

The St. Francis Day Blessing of the Animals is a church tradition that brings joy to four-legged, multi-legged, or no-legged pets and their two-legged owners. As the October 4 feast day approaches in this pandemic year, churches from cities to rural areas are looking, out of necessity, for new creative ways to celebrate.

In areas where church buildings remain closed, the Blessing of the Animals is going virtual with online blessings. In other places, blessings are planned for the church lawn, maintaining social distance for all living creatures and masks for humans, or a drive-thru assembly.

Known worldwide for its elaborate St. Francis Day blessings, the Cathedral Church of St. John The Divine in New York is not daunted by the pandemic, although the blessings will look at bit different in 2020. The cathedral plans a six-hour livestream of “music, prayer, joy, blessings and fun,” with an eye on the cathedral’s well-known resident peacocks.

“October 4 will be a full day of virtual activities and videos spotlighting the cathedral’s commitment to animals and the natural world,” said Isadora Wilkenfeld, manager, cathedral programming and communications. “We’re working on a piece that goes into depth about the cathedral’s feathered residents in particular, with a special focus on Jim, one of our three peacocks, and the wonderful people caring for him and other special birds at the Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine.”

Church of the Atonement, Tenafly, New Jersey will hold a drive-thru event with the Rev. Lynne Bleich Weber blessing each animal – live, photo, or stuffed toy – and distributing a Blessing to Go prayer card.  “Atonement began its Blessings to Go Ministry for its 150th anniversary, offering interfaith prayer cards for, among other things, blessings for a companion animal, for those who are grieving the loss of a pet, and for Earth and its creatures. These will be encased in separate plastic bags for this year’s drive-thru blessing,” she said.

In Flagstaff, Arizona, Epiphany Church is planning a celebration as close to normal as possible. Music Director Mary Anne Bruner explained, “We have a labyrinth in our memorial garden. Our rector is going to mark spots six feet apart. Folks will come in the north gate and find a spot. If there’s more than can be accommodated, she’ll do a second round, after the first group leaves through the south gate. We’ve used the garden for years, so that’s about as ‘normal’ as we can get!”

The Rev. Jon M. Richardson at St. David’s, Kinnelon, New Jersey has been conducting indoor, in-person worship as well as livestream since July. “But for the Blessing of the Animals, we’ll do it as a brief, outdoor service in the afternoon,” he noted.  “Each household will be asked to bring their pets or a picture.  They will be asked to park in the church lot with an open parking space between cars, then stand at the backs of their vehicles with their pets. We’ll have some brief prayers, and then I’ll go around to each car/household to bless their pets. Masks and physical distancing are required.”

Rather than the usual town square locale for the pet blessing, “this year we will be doing the Blessing of the Animals via Zoom and ask people to include their pet in the camera view,” explained the Rev. Jerry A. Racioppi, rector at Holy Spirit, Verona, New Jersey. “In place of our larger town square event we’ll offer animal blessings (and adoptions) to go. I’ll be offering animal blessings – masks required for humans of course – in our parking lot and we’ll have one rescue organization available onsite for possible adoptions of pets.”

The Rev. Kent Marcoux of Transfiguration, Silver Spring, Maryland plans to use the church’s spacious outside area for a community event. “Following the liturgy, a ‘blessing party’ will travel the grounds to meet guests to offer more personalized blessings, while families and friends remain stationary. Online blessings will be offered on Zoom from a station under the basketball hoop, with Zoom participants projected on the big outdoor movie screen next to the hoop.” Marcoux is also offering local health officials an area for Covid-19 testing.

Some churches, like Christ and The Epiphany in East Haven, Connecticut include a food collection with the pet blessings. “We collect donations for the East Haven Animal Shelter,” said vestry member Diane Villano.

The drive-thru at St. Timothy’s, Lake Jackson, Texas will include a food drive for both pets and humans. “Our local food bank is in serious need due to the cancellation of the county fair that brought in the bulk of their fall donations,” explained the Rev. Genevieve Turner Razim. “‘People food’ doesn’t fit as well with the animal theme, but the need is real, and it provides an opportunity for folks to give.”

St. Stephen’s, Edina, Minnesota plans to incorporate the blessings with online liturgy. “In our pre-recorded service we are going to have parishioners do readings with their pets,” explained Molly Reichard, minister of community engagement. “Parishioners are submitting photos of pets which we’ll use to create a video set to All Creatures Great and Small. Then we’re going to do a live pet blessing on our ‘Live Peace & Coffee Hour’ Zoom which follows the premiere of our pre-recorded worship.”