As Whitehorse United Church minister Keltie van Binsbergen stepped up to the pulpit to deliver her sermon, spontaneous barking, panting and sniffing noises could be heard from the congregation.
Main Street’s Protestant place of worship had a few unfamiliar faces for Sunday’s service.
Among the usual churchgoers were two black labs, a German Sheppard and a hamster named Zippy.
And inside the front entrance there were Milk-Bones and Meow Mix, small carrot nubs and a big bowl of water.
The service was supposed to happen in the park outside, but the heavens didn’t co-operate.
The blustery grey skies filled with rain and pushed the United Church’s first Blessing of the Pets inside.
The aisles and pews held dogs, cats and small rodents of various shapes and colours.
“Traditionally this is held inside,” announced van Binsbergen to her multi-specied congregation.
“Apparently God wanted us to follow tradition.
“If animals get restless, you can take them outside for a walk around. I know my dog is one of the least well-behaved,” she said with a smile.
A casual onlooker might have assumed those who brought their furry companions from the doghouse to the house of God suffered from a peculiar case of dyslexia.
But the ceremony, which celebrates the special bond between pet and person, is infused with centuries of religious significance.
“People in England used to bring their animals to the Anglican Church to be blessed once a year. It started with the farm animals and now it’s grown into a way of acknowledging the special role that pets have in people’s lives,” said van Binsbergen.
“And seeing as Whitehorse is the dog-owner capital of the world, we thought it would be something for our church to do for the city,” she said.
It put the word out to its congregation and hung posters around town to publicize the event.
“A lot of churches promote all the family stuff and we thought ‘You know, there are a lot of single people out there for whom the pet is their family,’” said van Binsbergen.
“We told people ‘Hey, if your pet’s special to you, bring ‘em to the service.’”
The tradition began on one fine day in the early years of the 13th century when St. Francis of Assisi came across a flock of birds in some trees near the town of Bevagna, Italy.
“Wait for me while I go preach to my sisters the birds,” Francis told his entourage.
He then gave a short sermon and blessed his new feathered friends.
Realizing the importance of what he had done, the beloved saint made it a habit to bless all birds, as well as all other living creatures.
Today, Christians around the world celebrate Francis’s love for animals by performing the Blessing of Pets on October 4th.
Van Binsbergen and the United Church’s worship council were worried about having to hold the service indoors, so they decided to do it in June, on the same day as the annual church picnic.
But, as it was raining, they had to bring it all inside anyway.
“In some ways it’s better because the animals know when they are indoors they have to behave,” said van Binsbergen.
As the service got underway, dogs were sniffing each other, climbing on the seats and struggling to break free from their owners’ tight leashes.
The cats were left in their cages.
“Animal lovers appreciate the cleverness and devotion of pets, whose gifts range from delighting us with funny tricks to working at being helpers and keepers,” read the service’s program.
“Just being near them can cheer us up, help us to relax and laugh, and improve our health,” it continued.
“They, more than some humans, set an example of forgiveness.
“Even when we are impatient, unfair, or angry with them, they rush to greet us, purring, barking, licking, or squawking.”
“Today we are here to say thank you for animals that are very special to us, our pets,” said van Binsbergen, leading the congregation in prayer.
“Help us to learn to look after the fish and birds and animals of all the world, in the jungles and deserts, in the forests and seas.”
Then van Binsbergen brought all the children and their pets to the front of the church and she asked them why God made animals.
“Because they play with you,” answered one young boy.
“They’re cuddly, and they give you kisses,” said another.
“They are there to eat each other and control the population,” answered a little girl.
Later, dog-trainer Kirstie Simpson of the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association gave a brief demonstration with Jake, her 11-year-old Czech German Sheppard.
Simpson got emotional and shed a few tears as she explained to the congregation that the sable-coloured canine was soon to retire after nine dedicated years of service to the association.
Following several prayers, songs and presentations, it was time to bless the animals one by one.
Dozens of owners brought their pets to the front to receive the minister’s careful benediction, forming a line down the aisle that brought to mind the boarding of an ark.
Some held photographs of their four-legged friends up to be blessed.
“I gave a special prayer for the pet and to many years of happiness for the pet’s life with its owner,” said van Binsbergen, whose own dog Lucy also joined the queue.
Jody Connors brought her two dogs Bell and Griffen, six-years and nine-months old respectively, and both mutts.
“It’s a good way for church to reach out to people and challenge old-time churchgoers,” said Connors.
And Conners has some experience with the ceremony.
A few years ago she attended a service at a Vancouver church that blessed horses, pigs, goats, and sheep.
“One kid even brought his tarantula,” she said.
In another pew sat 13-year-old Andrew Savard with his little brown hamster Zippy, who fidgeted nervously in his hands.
“He’s like a ninja, because he likes to climb up across the roof of his cage and do back flips,” said Savard.
Unfortunately his younger sister Paige’s hamster Uncle Jerry — named after their uncle Jerry — couldn’t make it because he had recently passed away.
Also in attendance was Moe Mocha Ziggy Furlong, part shih tzu, part papillon, who spent most of the time in the clingy embrace of his owners 10-year old Sidney, seven-year-old Mckenzie and four-year-old Sidney Furlong.
And Simpson said she was going to bring her goose, but then thought it might be better to leave it at home.
“I didn’t want it to start pecking at everyone,” she said.
It was parishioner Jeff Marynowski who first pressed the church to host the pet-blessing service.
At first, the committee was uneasy about the whole idea, but decided it was a good way to reach out to the community, he said.
“Animals are a big part of our lives, they deserve to be recognized,” said Marynowski.
And now that the test run was a success, he thinks it’s a good bet they’ll be making it a yearly event.
St. Francis would have been proud.