Blessing All Creatures, Great and Small

November 30, 2006
Creature comforts: reveling in the joys of animal ownership, Nicole Roy keeps an eye on St. Bernard companion, Sydney
Creature comforts: reveling in the joys of animal ownership, Nicole Roy keeps an eye on St. Bernard companion, Sydney. Butch Usery

St. Francis of Assisi, born Giovanni di Bernardone in 1182, is known among Catholics as founder of the Franciscan order and patron saint of, among other things, animals, birds, and the environment. A "Canticle of the Creatures," attributed to St. Francis, reads, "All praise to you, Oh Lord, for all these brother and sister creatures." There are stories of him pacifying a man-eating wolf, giving up his room to a donkey, and speaking to birds.

Over the years, it has been common practice for Catholic and Episcopal churches to hold ceremonies to honor and bless animals on or around St. Francis' feast day, October 4. In 1989, DeRonda "Rondy" Elliott, a divinity student, organized the first such ceremony at Duke, on the Chapel lawn—a tradition that continues today.

Elliott, who went on to earn her master's in theological studies two years later, studied animal-rights philosophy and Christian theology. "For some time I had been intrigued and dismayed by the anthropocentric nature of most Western religions, including my own," she wrote in the Friends of Duke Chapel newsletter in the fall of 2004. "Ethical issues that concern humans have been and are comprehensively addressed by religion, but the human treatment of animals seemed to be a non-issue, even though their suffering at human hands is widespread, institutionalized, and hidden from the public eye."

This year's ceremony starts just before noon on Sunday, October 1, as community members, pets in tow, descend on the lawn of the Chapel Quad to celebrate and receive blessings. The Durham Children's Choir, dressed in matching red polo shirts and arranged on the steps leading to the Chapel's main entrance, sings selections from A Menagerie of Songs. "O penguin do you ever try to flap your flipper wings and fly?" they sing. "How do you feel, a bird by birth and yet for life tied down to earth?"

The crowd, seated on blue folding chairs or sprawled on the grass, claps politely. A woman tries to calm a furry, black dog jerking its head to observe neighbors and barking intermittently.

Bunny blessings: Emma Sharon with Dipper, her dwarf bunny
Bunny blessings: Emma Sharon with Dipper, her dwarf bunny. Butch Usery

Sam Wells, dean of Duke Chapel, delivers the homily, which draws on his own experience as a pet owner. "It took me a long time before I was persuaded to get a dog," he says. He was concerned that dividing his attention wouldn't be fair to either his dog or his congregation. "But then a dog came into my life," he says, "a golden retriever named Connie." He describes the "long, slow gaze" Connie gives him each morning, as if to ask, "How could you have left me downstairs for eight whole hours?" and the glance inquiring, "Is this all?" as he finishes pouring food into her bowl. Members of the crowd murmur and nod, familiar with these common canine expressions.

"A dog's faith is a picture of how we should believe in God," Wells says. We often don't measure up, he continues, but "God's faith is just like Connie's. Whatever we do to him, he comes back for more."

As Wells speaks, two St. Bernards lie panting in the shade of a Japanese maple outside the Page Building. Nearby, a third St. Bernard sits with a small barrel on a cord around its neck. Farther back on the quad, two terriers wrestle in the grass.

Rondy Elliott, now a nurse at student health's East Campus Wellness Clinic and still a part of the ceremony in its eighteenth year, comes to the podium. In a heartfelt litany, she thanks God for all creatures and prays for animals that are abused or exploited. Then community members come forward and share stories of their own animals. A boy tells of his dog, which he says died after eating poison ivy. A woman presents a cat named Domino, noting that "his sister Fifi shuns the spotlight," and sends her thoughts and prayers to foster animals awaiting adoption. Nancy Ferree-Clark, senior pastor of the congregation of the Chapel, remembers Bubbette, an iguana who came to the ceremony for several years, but died in May. "It's not easy being green," Ferree-Clark jokes, "but Bubbette flaunted it and was ever so beautiful."

After a group blessing, volunteers fan out into the crowd to bless each animal in turn. The volunteers wear white smocks with stickers on their chests that feature an illustration of a rooster and the words, "Jesus loves me, too."

Off to one side, Amberly Adam of Durham stands with her Great Dane, Boone. Boone, three years old, with a tan coat, black snout, and unclipped ears, stands quietly on the sidewalk as two young girls approach. "How big is he?" one of them asks.

"Thirty-six inches tall to the shoulder," Adam tells her.

"How big can they get?" the girl asks.

They can get a little bit bigger, Adam says, but it's not good for their joints or their systems.

"Has Boone been blessed?" asks Ed Haymond, approaching in a white smock. Adam says he has, "but he wouldn't mind being blessed again." Haymond places his hand on the dog's head—he doesn't have to stoop as low as for the other dogs—and wishes a long and happy life for Boone and wisdom for his owner, Adam.

Maria Coleman, the mother of one of the girls, comes up, toting a cage containing two gerbils. She takes one look at Boone. "This is almost the size of a horse!" she says to the girls, who, as if on cue, dash off to see two real horses that stand grazing near the James B. Duke statue. Miss Ellie, an Arabian, and Lurch, a quarter horse, have come with their owners: Tanya White, who works at the East Campus post office, and her boyfriend, Jerry Stoles. White and Stoles keep a total of six horses on their Mebane farm. "These are our favorites," White jokes. "Don't tell the others." This is the first time they've come to the blessing.

Children approach and ask to touch Ellie. It's clear that this event is not just about the blessing. It's a place for animals to see and be seen (and, with all the children present, a place to be petted endlessly).

"Do you ever ride them?" a girl asks.

"We ride them every weekend," White says.

Back on the quad, animals and their owners loiter, though the blessing is largely done. David Young, of Durham, sets Princess Ganymede Foobar, a sixteen-and-a-half-year-old beagle, on the grass. He plays with her gently, tossing her doggie treats. Emma Sharon, nine, introduces Dipper, her black dwarf bunny. Ears pinned back and white nose twitching, he sits in a cardboard box with his name on the side, nestled into a washcloth and sawdust. Dipper, Emma says, is a "house rabbit," meaning he's not confined to a cage or a box when he's at home.

Mickey, a short, thick black dog with large, pointy ears, has come with his owner, Nancy Kiplinger of Chapel Hill. Kiplinger says Mickey seemed to enjoy the ceremony, but was "distracted by the proceedings." Nearby, a man picks up a cat and holds it close, posing for a photographer. Mickey turns and sees the cat. Excited, he begins to jump frantically. He's not pulling on the leash, but jumping straight up in the air. Up and down, up and down, as if on some invisible canine pogo stick. Kiplinger just laughs. The brother and sister creatures are at it again.