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St. Francis at St. John the Divine
By Jack Wintz, O.F.M.
Few Churches honor the patron saint of ecology with more earnestness and verve—and with more animals in the pews and aisles—than the Episcopal Cathedral of New York.


Voices of Wolf, Whale and Loon
Why Do Episcopalians Have a Special Love for St. Francis?
Web Links

Animal Blessing at St. John the Divine
Under the loving gaze of Christ, Lord of Creation, a camel and bull (and other animals nearby) await the opening of the door and their entrance into the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.


It has to be one of the most spectacular animal blessings and celebrations of St. Francis of Assisi on the planet. The setting is the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in upper Manhattan, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world.

For the last 18 years, on the first Sunday of October, this immense cathedral, over 600 feet in length, is transformed into the lost Garden of Paradise. There, for several glorious hours, over 3,500 men, women and children—with dogs, cats, gerbils, turtles and other pets at their sides—worship and praise their loving Creator in the spirit of St. Francis.

On the 5th of this month, they will be doing it again. Another huge, joy-filled and animal-rich assembly will observe the 19th annual St. Francis Day celebration. The Right Rev. Mark S. Sisk will preside over the ceremonies, his third time after being installed at the cathedral as the Episcopal bishop of New York, September 29, 2001. Immediately after a festive, two-hour celebration of the Eucharist, the great bronze doors of the cathedral will swing open. A procession of larger and more exotic animals, with their caretakers, will move rather silently down the center aisle.

Last year, a man with a huge eagle perched on his gloved hand led the way. The eagle was followed by a large camel, two llamas, a ram, a full-grown bull, a man carrying a boa constrictor and a woman holding a big blue-gold macaw, to mention a few.

On and on they came, until all were gathered before the main altar—where the bishop prayed: "We give you thanks, most gracious God, for the beauty of earth and sky and sea,...for the songs of birds and the loveliness of flowers, and for the wonder of your animal kingdom. We praise you for these good gifts and pray that we may safeguard them for posterity....Amen."

A few weeks ago, Bishop Sisk told St. Anthony Messenger that he was "looking forward to this year's celebration with great anticipation.

"I am a Franciscan so it has deep spiritual connections for me. St. Francis Day celebrates God's gift of creation in a special way. Every Eucharist celebrates creation. But on St. Francis Day we pull out all stops and make the joy of that celebration clear and dramatic for the entire world to see.

"I have been a Third Order Franciscan for 32 years," Bishop Sisk explains, "so this service means a very great deal to me." Though the bishop is a Third Order Franciscan in the Episcopal tradition, he points out that three of his close relatives have been "Third Order Regular Franciscans within the Roman Catholic community."

Voices of Wolf, Whale and Loon

St. Anthony Messenger
Basking in the smile of its caretaker, this llama is one of two llamas that have joined other exotic animals in front of the cathedral for the procession of animals about to begin.

One year ago, October 6, 2002, St. Anthony Messenger had the good fortune to be part of the vast, jubilant assembly of people and their pets gathered at St. John the Divine for the Feast of St. Francis. The spirit of St. Francis was evident from the word go.

The opening procession and Eucharist. No sooner does the Eucharist's opening procession begin than the Paul Winter Consort and the St. Francis Day Festival Choir break into an exuberant adaptation of St. Francis' "Canticle of the Sun," praising God through "Brother Sun," "Sister Moon and stars," as well as through "Brother Wolf," "Sister Whale," "Sister Loon" and many other creatures.

And as ministers, cross-bearers, banner-wavers and dancers—amidst clouds of incense and pulsating rhythms—process joyfully down the long center aisle, we hear over the P.A. system the primordial cries of whale, wolf and loon.

All during the exultant music, praise and motion, however, the animals in the pews are curiously quiet, except for an occasional howl or whimper, which blends harmoniously with the voices of wolves and whales and other sounds from the deep. The whole standing-room-only crowd of women and men—as well as animals of land, sea and air—seem to be worshiping God together in one symphony of praise. They have become one family of creation, which, according to the faith vision of Francis of Assisi, is precisely what they are created to be.

The words of the opening collect of the day, prayed by the bishop after the procession, echo the joy of the moment: "Most high, almighty and good Lord, grant...that after the example of blessed Francis we may, for love of you, delight in all your creatures...through Jesus Christ our Lord...."

In the sermon, delivered by the Very Rev. Dr. James Kowalski, the dean of the cathedral, everyone is urged to thank God "for the special insights that Francis has entrusted to us" and "to renew our commitment to being good stewards of the gift of creation."

Throughout the Eucharist, the prayers and hymns continue to remind us of Francis' love for creation. And during the singing of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, for example, human voices continue to intermingle with those of other creatures.

At the end of the Eucharist, the prayer chosen as the post-communion prayer is the Peace Prayer of St. Francis, which the bishop invites all to recite.

The blessing of animals before the altar. Immediately following the Peace Prayer are the opening of the bronze doors and the silent procession of large animals. The eagle, the camel, the boa constrictor and other animals come to the main altar to receive the bishop's blessing.

"Live without fear," Bishop Sisk announces. "Your Creator loves you, made you holy and has always protected you. Go in peace to follow the good road and may God's blessing be with you always. Amen."

The words of the blessing, according to the printed program, are "attributed to St. Clare."

Blessing of pets on the cathedral lawn. After the ceremonies inside the cathedral are completed, the celebration moves outside onto the spacious and tree-adorned lawn alongside it.

A festive fair with various exhibits and performances takes place there, with people lining up before the clergy at various venues on the lawn to have their pets blessed individually. And so the day's ceremonies come to an end appropriately amidst the trees and sun-splashed greenery—with happy clusters of humans enjoying the wonders of nature along with their blessed animals. For these shining moments—and hours—we have returned to the Garden of Eden as one family of creation. 

Why Do Episcopalians Have a Special Love for
St. Francis?

St. Anthony Messenger
The Very Rev. James Kowalski was among the clergy blessing animals on the lawn of the cathedral. Here he blesses a cat and its emotionally moved caretaker.

St. Anthony Messenger
As her husband blesses the cat (see photo above), the Rev. Dr. Anne Brewer, assistant minister at St. John the Divine, blesses a dog on the lawn nearby.

The Very Rev. Dr. James Kowalski, the dean of St. John the Divine Cathedral, graciously offered the following response to the above question:

"Anglicans have developed a creation theology....Anglican divines wrote poetry in which even pebbles of sand on the beach sing out the praises of the Lord. Francis seems to offer us particular hope [in so far as he] identified with the weak, the suffering and all creatures—great and small.

"It would be sad to sentimentalize Francis, instead of seeing that one major healing is needed on this planet, our fragile island home. What needs healing most urgently is our relationship to creation.

"In some ways, Episcopalians have struggled more with and contributed more to incarnational and creation theologies than many other denominations. And they have tried to see the social and political implications of these theologies—not just the personal and interpersonal applications.

"Many people comment about how quiet the cathedral is during a long service like this, with 3,500 people and hundreds of cats, dogs, birds and other animals....The harmony and peacefulness in the cathedral touch people deeply—a kind of foretaste of the lion and the lamb lying down together....I think St. Francis Day at St. John the Divine is another glimpse of how life is meant to be, with all of God’s creation not just surviving, but also living interdependently and harmoniously together."

Web Links is the general Web site for the cathedral, which includes a virtual tour of the church. lists Catholic and other Christian churches which host pet blessings in the United States, giving the dates, times and places.

Jack Wintz, O.F.M., is contributing editor of St. Anthony Messenger and author of the popular children's book St. Francis in San Francisco. Find out more at


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