When the Rev. Tom Purdy goes to work at Christ Church Frederica, he’s rarely alone. Scarlett, his German shepherd, is almost always at his side.
“She comes to work with me most days,” he said. “We have two dogs here almost every day. Our administrator brings her dog a lot too.”
That is perfectly fine with Purdy, who thoroughly enjoys being surrounded by four-legged friends. In fact, in addition to Scarlett, he and his family have two other pups at home.
“We have Sadie, who is a rescue from the Humane Society. She is a lab-pit bull mix. Then we have Freddie, who we named for Frederica Road. He was a stray and we couldn’t find his owner, so after six weeks ... we just decided to keep him,” he said.
They have never regretted that decision. The Purdys, like so many others, feel that pets are part of their families. That is why, every October, he looks forward to one special day on the liturgical calendar — St. Francis’ Feast Day. Held Oct. 4, it is when churches celebrate the life and legacy of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals.
During the occasion, many congregations also offer a blessing for pets. It is something that Purdy feels is special for a number of reasons.
“At the core, it is a recognition of the significance that animals have in our lives. I’m a dog person, of course, and it is really nice to celebrate and recognize them and all animals, as well as the connection that they have to our faith,” he said.
Purdy’s congregation held its blessing last Saturday. During the casual service, more than 70 creatures — of varying shapes and sizes — were blessed. The humans were also gifted with small St. Francis metals to put on their pets’ collars.
“The majority were dogs but we had some cats. We had a golden orb weaver (spider) that someone brought off their porch ... so I blessed him. We had bees because one of our members is a beekeeper,” he said. “I had a snail, which was my first snail. We had a rabbit. And we were supposed to have a horse, but the horse didn’t make it.”
Even sans horse, the event was an uplifting one. Purdy feels that it truly embodies the spirit of St. Francis, celebrating the sacred nature of all animals.
“It is upbeat and it’s exciting to have that many dogs in one place. For the most part, the dogs are really well behaved. Every once in a while, someone will snap and put somebody in their place, but overall it is great. The people are smiling. The dogs and cats are happy,” he said.
“People are really thankful that we offer this. It brings out all sorts of people ... not just our members. They appreciate the chance to recognize their pets in a sacramental way.”
The Rev. Tommy Townsend agrees. The new rector of Holy Nativity Episcopal Church on St. Simons Island is actually preparing to hold his pet first blessing this morning.
“I was ordained about a year ago ... last November, so this will be my first. I’m excited about it. This has been a long-held tradition at Holy Nativity and when I came, they asked me if I would do it and I said ‘of course. I’m a big animal lover,’” he recalled.
Townsend will welcome pets and owners at 10 a.m. today (Saturday) in the courtyard of the church, 615 Mallery Street, St. Simons Island. Pets should be on leashes, crated or in similar containers for their safety and that of the other pets.
“We got a bit behind with Hurricane Irma, we had a lot of damage. That is why we are doing it this weekend. But it will be a very casual, very short service. We will have a liturgy, prayers and then I will bless any animal brought to me,” he said.
To do that, he will have a bowl of holy water and a branch. When the animal is presented Townsend will say, “(name of the pet) may you be blessed in the name of the father, and of the son and of the holy spirit. May you and (owner’s name) enjoy life together and find joy with the God who created you. Amen.”
“It is very simple ... just like St. Francis. It is nothing elaborate or crazy,” he said.
“St. Francis was an interesting soul. He was really the first to recognize that humans are just another of God’s creations along with the rest of creation. And he knew there was a real connection between people and animals ... and then to the creator.”
Townsend feels that the uplifting service is needed now more than ever in light of recent tragic events, like the mass murder in Las Vegas on Sunday.
“Pets are family and it is a wonderful time of year to focus on the love we have for our pets, as well as giving thanks to God who created us all,” he said.
“It has been a hard week for all of us and I think this will be a good time to take our minds off that for a minute and focus on this love.”