Walking on all four legs with his tongue sticking out at moments, 8-year-old Sunny found himself in the midst of a worship service Sunday at the Duke University Chapel.
Clergy and members of the chapel’s congregation observed the Blessing of Animals service held annually at Duke since 1989. The service coincides with the closest Sunday to the Feast Day of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals.
“This is a joyous day to embrace the animal companions God gives to us, and we look forward to blessing them and hearing stories from God and stories from you about how these creatures touched your lives,” said the Rev. Andrew Phillips, assistant pastor of the congregation at Duke Chapel.
Sunny was one of those animals. His owner, Leslie Ho, was at the chapel to visit friends who were were camped out in anticipation of their upcoming wedding.
“And someone was like oh are you here for the Blessing of the Animals, and we were talking with more and more people, but it wasn’t really planned,” Ho said.
However, Sunny, who Ho received from an area animal shelter in January, was in need of a blessing, Ho said.
“He definitely needs to get better with other dogs,” she said.
Otherwise, Sunny likes “hanging out on the couch, watching TV, sticking his head out of the car when it’s less than 40 miles per hour and napping,” Ho said.
Marylou Bembe was another resident who brought a first time pet to Sunday’s blessing.
Bembe is the “godmother” to 11-year-old Poppy, a Standard Parti Poodle.
Poppy was enjoying a stroll in Duke gardens, which led him to the observance, Bembe said.
“I think the whole idea of Saint Francis and animals are such an important part of our lives,” she said. “We heard about it and thought we’d check it out.”
In reflecting on Saint Francis of Assisi, the Rev. Michael Martin, director of Duke Catholic Center, said the 13th-century Italian “ has become synonymous with love of all of God’s creations.”
“If asked today if he were comfortable with this moniker, he might chuckle,” Martin said.
Saint Francis’ life challenges people to be stewards of all of God’s creation,” he said.
“Our pets help us to appreciate this dynamic of glorifying God through stewardship,” Martin said. “We care for our pets. They have an honored place in our lives. They become part of the family in unique way. While they are not surrogates for human relationships, pets allow us to reflect God’s love in the way in which our pets call us to care for the vulnerable in our midst.”
For Kim Harris, taking care of 11-year-old St. Bernard Frannie was part of that calling.
Harris connected with Frannie after she had to put down her former St. Bernard and a friend knew Frannie’s owners were moving away and retiring.
“So it just worked out perfectly,” Harris said. “She is just the sweetest girl.”
Frannie’s age was one of the reasons Harris sought a blessing for her on Sunday.
“She’s got a little bit of arthritis in her legs, so we want continued good health,” Harris said.
For those who missed Sunday’s blessing, the chapel will display paintings on loan from the Duke Lemur Center, Carolina Tiger Rescue and Conservators Center made by animals through Oct. 11, according to a news release from the university.
“The paintings by lemurs, lions and tigers are made when the animals walk in nontoxic paint and are encouraged to play on a canvas on the ground,” the release stated.