In early October, I received an e-mail invitation from my dear friend, Chaplain Cherilyn Frei, the Director of Spiritual Care at Ronald McDonald House of New York. It was to attend a special Mass in celebration of The Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, Patron Saint of Animals and Nature. She referred to the event in her invitation as a “Blessing of the Pets.” Now I have been aware of the blessing of the animals throughout my entire professional life as a dog and cat writer. The truth is I hadn’t been to one in at least ten years.
Chaplain Cherilyn Frei with her therapy dogs, Teigh and Belle. Chaplain Frei earned her M.A. in Theology from Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry and is a board-certified chaplain. She completed a two-year clinical residency as a chaplain at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Canter. Before coming to the Ronald McDonald House her most recent position was with the Catholic Health Care System of the Archdiocese of New York.
Getting there involved a long, city bus ride from one end of Manhattan to the other, but I felt I should go as a gesture of friendship and because I am quite immersed in the spiritual connection between dogs and humans as the result of my newest book, Dog Spelled Backwards.
I had plenty of time to muse over the subject on the long bus ride to the upper east side where the world famous Ronald McDonald House is located. I must confess that another reason for attending was unabashed curiosity. I’d heard so much about Ronald McDonald House in the news and from overheard conversations between Cherilyn and her husband, David Frei, the Director of Communications for the Westminster Kennel Club. They are both quite committed to its mission and make many efforts in its behalf, partly as a job and partly as a fervent belief in all the good that’s done there.
In case you didn’t know, there are 270 Ronald McDonald Houses around the country that make it possible for the families of seriously ill children to stay together away from home at no cost during very difficult medical treatments. Unless you’ve lived with the devastating reality of having your child battle a life-threatening illness, usually cancer, you cannot imagine the good that these way stations of compassion do. Ronald McDonald Houses are mostly financed by their own individual fund raising. A small percentage is underwritten by Ronald McDonald House Charities, which is the foundation arm of the Ronald McDonald Corporation. A small percentage comes from the area owner-operators of McDonald Restaurants. Most of the monies that run each of the individual houses around the world come from individual fund raising and donations. The end results give an entirely new perspective on McDonald’s Happy Meal.
As my bus rolled on and First Avenue whizzed by, my mind drifted back to a time before I made writing about pets my life’s work. A school chum and I were roaming around northern California in his car. It was then that I saw my first blessing of the animals. It was a bright but slightly foggy day. The event was outdoors, in front of a tiny white church, the only one in the town of Santa something or other, near Petaluma, where a big sign proclaimed it the egg capital of the world; or maybe it was the artichoke capital. I don’t remember. I was between lifetimes and more or less on the bum in California, just driving around, trying to figure out what I was going to be when I grew up. We stopped the car having come upon a sweet little crowd gathered to the left of the church and watched what was going on. It was a charming scene that could have been a painting on the cover of a tin candy box. A priest in his white vestments stood on the front steps with a gentle but commanding presence. He held up a metal ornament in his right hand, an instrument for blessing animals and people.
The cluster of his congregation gathered to attention in an orderly crowd. Their line consisted mostly of children, some holding on to a mom or a bent-over man with a long, white mustache. They stood with serious firmness, each one holding an animal. There were dogs, cats, and an occasional bird in a cage, a goat on a lead held by a boy, even a burro, behaving and following dutifully a woman in a long skirt. With a nod from the priest, they began to solemnly march past him. As they approached the priest the girls curtsied and smiled widely, revealing a few missing teeth in the front, probably hidden under a pillow waiting for a dime. A few giggled. The boys, the little boys, bowed stiffly and a few held their pet up closer to be sure to receive the priest’s blessing along with the drops of holy water. As each of them walked past, they seemed to be offering their pets to God as an offering but settled for the priest’s blessing. He gave a serious little smile to each one and occasionally patted the child or the animal on the head. At the end, just before it was over a young girl, obviously late, ran up to the priest before he turned to go inside. She held a bowl half-filled with water and a single goldfish sloshing from side to side, holding on for dear life. The crowd laughed at her as she did her best to hold back her tears. The priest held her chin with his left hand and gave her a special, broad smile. He whispered something in her ear and she smiled shyly and curtsied. We drove on confident that the girl and the goldfish were truly blessed. I never forgot that little drama. It meant something to me but I didn’t know what at the time.
Many, many years later, with a number of dog and cat books in print, I attended a Blessing of the Animals in the world’s largest cathedral, St. John the Devine, in upper Manhattan. I represented House Beautiful Magazine as its monthly pet columnist. I was given a special press credential along with reporters and photographers from newspapers and other magazines. We sat in a special section of the huge, overpowering church, down front and to the right side, next to its magnificent stain glass windows and its one long, carpeted center aisle leading to the mammoth outer doors. It was all so gothic and from centuries ago. There was a very loud banging on the front doors, and with great drama, they slowly opened, allowing the daylight to intrude and pain the eyes. The organ began to play something solemn and demanding of our attention. A religious entourage consisting of priests, nuns, and monks entered followed by a long, impressive procession of all manner of animals and their handlers and owners. The first in line was a camel, and then, as I recall, a donkey, and a pony, and a smattering of youngsters with dogs on leash and cats held in arms, birds in cages, a colorful toucan clutching a man’s arm, and at the end of the line were two llamas and a baby elephant. Overriding the organ was the loud motor sounds of dozens of clicking cameras. There were more photographers at work than the final moments of a Westminster Best In Show moment. It was pageantry beyond anything I had ever witnessed.
Finally, my bus ride up Sixth Avenue was over and I walked a short distance to the Ronald McDonald House. It was much, much larger than I had imagined with a very big, subdued lobby. A receptionist politely directed me to the chapel, which involved walking through what could only be described as a massive parlor, the sort I have seen photos of at seaside resorts with couches and armchairs and lamps everywhere. Despite its size, it was warm, welcoming, and quite comfortable-looking. Here and there were youngsters acting their age, with energy and playful enthusiasm. They didn’t exactly abuse the furniture but they didn’t seem to restrain themselves, either.
The chapel at Ronald McDonald House.
The chapel itself was very comforting, despite its surprisingly small size. It would have fit into a tiny portion of any full-size church. It was special, though. It was a church-in-miniature with several rows of padded benches occupying most of the room. At the back wall was an altar facing the rows of benches. It was a minute event compared to the one I remembered at St. John the Devine, and yet it had the same dignity, the same peacefulness, and the same sanctity as any church. Standing behind the altar was a very tall priest in full, formal vestment. He was quite impressive. However, his very tall presence made the tiny chapel seem even smaller than it was. Cherilyn introduced him to me and she seemed truly pleased to see me. She said, “I’d like you to meet Monsignor John Sullivan, the Pastor of Saint Joseph parish, on East 87th Street.” I began to say what a pleasure it was to meet him, using his title, when he stopped me in a friendly voice, and said, “Please, Mordecai, call me John.” He said it in a lilting, almost indiscernible Irish brogue. I replied, “Okay, father.” I felt like one of the Dead End Kids who snuck into church and could have sworn I said, “Faddah.” Rarely will you find a Monsignor in such a small church, but a place for worship will do for anyone.
Cherilyn and some of the RMDH kids.
At the announced time, the “congregation” began to assemble and filled the benches and chairs along the walls. There was a scattering of children, bright-eyed and filled with vim and eagerness and looking as if they had just finished with some mischief. Most of them had no hair but didn’t seem self-conscious about it. There were many adults and I assumed they were parents. Here and there were several women holding their therapy dogs that may or may not have been coming from their “duties” around the building. They all were quite touching and inspiring, to say the least. Cherilyn said that her dogs, Teigh and Belle, would have been in the chapel too but they were at Memorial Sloan-Kettering with her husband David, doing what therapy dogs do best.She then enlisted me to be the reader for the main prayer, Blessing of the Animals, Prayers of the Faithful. It was a first for me and I could hardly refuse. My turn came in the middle of the ceremony before the Monsignor’s Homily and after his Special Prayer Intentions. There were several other parts of the ceremony, not the least of which was a Mass, another first for me. What moved me the most as I read to those present was:
Lord, hear our prayer.
For the therapy dogs of the Ronald McDonald House, that they may be blessed, strengthened and protected as they perform their healing services for the children, family members and staff of this House.
For the handlers, (the guardians) of the therapy dogs, that they receive the gift of God’s grace as they enrich the lives of all whom they touch and that they are good stewards of the animals whose lives are entrusted to their care.
There was much more to the prayer but I almost choked and barely got through it. I stayed for all the rest, and even raised my hand to be “anointed,” like everyone else there, without fully understanding what it meant. It all brought back the memory of that first blessing of the animals I witnessed, nestled in the hilly countryside of California. Maybe that’s why I ultimately began writing about dogs, and then cats, and then horses, and birds, too. I once wrote a column about gold fish and as I did, I remembered a young girl running in tears to catch a blessing for her beloved pet, sloshing perilously in its bowl. Even a gold fish matters. There is much here to consider.
Mordecai Siegal is President Emeritus of the Dog Writers Association of America and a founding member of The Cat Writers’ Association. He resides in New York City.
“Dog Spelled Backwards. Soulful Writing by Literary Dog Lovers” (St. Martin’s Press) is his most recent book. He is also the author of “I Just Got a Kitten. What Do I Do?”(Simon & Schuster/Fireside); “The Cat Fanciers’ Association COMPLETE CAT BOOK. The Official Publication of the CFA” (HarperCollins), comparable to the AKC’s Complete Dog Book; “The Good Life: Your Dog’s First Year” (Simon and Schuster). His most durable books are “Good Dog, Bad Dog” (Henry Holt); “When Good Dogs Do Bad Things” (Little, Brown); the 10th Anniversary Revised Edition of “I Just Got A Puppy. What Do I Do?” (Simon & Schuster/Fireside); “The Cornell Book of Cats” (Villard); “The Davis Book of Dogs” (HarperCollins); and “The Davis Book of Horses” (HarperCollins).