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All creatures great and small - pets service at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast

Ahead of a special Pets Service at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast tomorrow, Judith Cole speaks to four ministers of religion about the four-legged friends in their lives ... and why they deserve a blessing too

Saint Anne's Cathedral is gearing up to resemble the Garden of Eden tomorrow - but hopefully minus the serpent. Inspired by the love of animals said to be held by St Francis of Assisi, the cathedral is holding, for the first time, a Pets Service, to which people are invited to bring their pets and receive a blessing in recognition of their contribution to society.

Dean's Vicar at St Anne's, the Rev Canon Mark Niblock, himself a dog lover, says the idea for the service has been under consideration for some time.

"This time of year, when we're thinking about Harvest, and with the anniversary of St Francis falling on October 4, we thought it would be a good time to have a celebration of the roles animals play in our lives, as well as putting pineapples and potatoes around the pulpit," he explains.

The service will include readings and relevant music on the organ and from the Cathedral girls' choir. And, while St Francis is said to have preached sermons to animals, at St Anne's each individual pet will simply receive a blessing.

Canon Niblock says: "The idea behind the blessing is to wish a person, or an object, well before God. I've known, in the past, people who have lost a pet and it's a very great upset and a pet really does become part of the family.

"In the past, when someone's pet has died, I've been asked to say a few words, or a prayer - whenever you see the person who's grieving, it's just that little endorsement, or spiritual act, that helps them pay their respects to the memory of their pets."

While the Bible does not refer to keeping pets, there are many references to animals - the most well-known is that explaining Creation, found in Genesis Chapter 1, which will be read at the service tomorrow.

Canon Niblock recognises the role animals can play in helping people of all ages at different points in their lives.

He and wife Cherry have two children, Jason (7) and Rowan (3), and have witnessed the effect the death of their first dog, Molly, had on the household last year, and then the joy their new puppy, Ruby, brought.

"I've had experiences in the past where the pet has been ill and is coming to the end of a long life and maybe for their owner it is the last link they have with their partner, who may have died a period of time before," he explains. "So, that can be an added element to that grief.

"When Molly, our beautiful red setter that we had for 10 years, passed away, the emptiness in the house was hard to deal with and for people living on their own that is even more so. The children knew she was poorly for a month or two. In a gentle way, dealing with the death of a pet for a child is some measure of preparation for a bereavement of a member of their family. While it's not pleasant, it is a fact of life.

"It's true that what you put into caring for a pet is completely dwarfed by what you get back. There are times when I go home and Ruby is the only one who shows particular enthusiasm to see me. But she laps up all the attention and, for the kids, the wee bond they have with the dog is very important," Canon Niblock adds.

The Rev Elizabeth Hanna, Rector of St Nicholas' Church of Ireland in south Belfast, has had a special bond with the two dogs in her life - and has even written a blog, The Rev and a Dog, about their adventures.

She remembers having pet dogs as a young child, but when the family moved to a council house where, in the Fifties, dogs were not allowed, she had to suspend any hopes of having a canine friend. Then, when working as a curate at Bangor Abbey, she saw the joy her rector Canon Ronnie Nesbitt's dog brought and decided to investigate acquiring one of her own.

She spied a photo of Eliot (named after the poet T S Eliot) placed by the Assisi Animal Sanctuary, near Newtownards, in the paper and, although he was a troubled dog, she couldn't turn away.

"He'd been in and out of Assisi I think four or five times - no one could handle him. But I was determined that he would be my dog," says Rev Hanna.

"I had to go to Assisi almost every day for a fortnight to walk him so that they could see I could handle him. He was a lovely, lovely dog, but he ate brand new Van Dal shoes and he ate the back of a sofa. The first six weeks were fraught, but then he calmed down and he was the best dog. So, when he died, I had to get another dog."

She immediately fell in love with Dougal, a Labrador cross, also from Assisi, and they have been inseparable in the three years since they met.

"I'm never keen to put human emotions on a dog, but he appears very affectionate," she says. "He follows me around and when I sit, he sits on my feet. We go out for an hour's walk almost every day and he's very bouncy - he would run up and sit at anybody's feet just to have his head scratched.

"I have particular red shoes that I wear for walking, but as soon as he sees them come out he gets excited. I daren't put them on if I'm not planning on going out."

Dougal has proven to be a dog of many talents - not only does he encourage other people, but he has served as a guard dog, too.

"I take him to visit at nursing homes and most are happy for me to bring him in. There are some parishioners who like to see him. He's not officially a therapy dog, but he works as therapy.

"If you live alone and can manage a dog, it is worth having one. The house was burgled last April and my car was stolen - the dog tried to alert me to it and I told him to be quiet. But I think the burglars must have heard him and made off without taking anything except the car. So, he is a protection and now if he barks in the night, I get up to see why."

Not only that, but Elizabeth is grateful for Dougal's inspiration in keeping her fit, particularly after having recently been ill with cancer.

"I was off from last November with cancer," she explains. "Friends had the dog and it was just lovely to get him back after four months.

"Since then, I think he's become more protective, or more affectionate. I feel he's had a big part to play in my own recovery. If you have a dog, you have to go out walking and I know that's been very good for me."

The Catholic chaplain at Queen's University, Fr Gerry Magee, can often be seen walking around the campus - accompanied by his collie dog, Jack.

The pair go back more than six years, when Jack, only a few months old at the time, was dumped at a monastery in Portglenone where Fr Magee worked.

They immediately bonded and have been together ever since, travelling to Tipperary for Gerry to take up a teaching post, and then to their current base on Elmwood Avenue.

"Jack is very gentle and good with people who are nervous, so he's very good with students who are a bit unsure of themselves. From my point of view, that's wonderful.

"Pets have an emotional synergy and you can develop a terrific bond and trust. It used to be said that dogs shouldn't be recommended for clergy, because we become concentrated on the animal when we should be concentrating on the person in front of us.

"But what I've found with Jack is that he draws people in and gives them a sense of being part of something, I suppose because he feels part of something.

"He's like a part of the chaplaincy team. He's the assistant chaplain."

Jack is an early riser, getting up at 6am to go for a walk, and then he and Fr Magee return home for breakfast and prayers.

"Most of my day is a working day. I open the chaplaincy at 9.30am and we close at 10pm, so I suppose my favourite parts of the day with Jack are the beginning and end of the day when I have a chance to sit down. When I go into my apartment to pray, or read, or relax, he'll be there and those moments of relaxation are important.

"The Franciscans have always had a tradition of blessing animals as part of God's creation. In terms of the care we give for creation, it is good to acknowledge that."

Rev Robin Waugh, Superintendent Minister in Sydenham Methodist, is also currently overseeing the work of East Belfast Mission. Married to Deryn, with children Rachel (13) and Nathan (10), the family has a cat named Scratch.

Rev Waugh also recognises the importance of pets in the community, but stresses they must always come second to people.

"We got two kittens about five years ago and the kids named them Patch and Scratch," he says. "Patch went AWOL and never came back and it broke the children's hearts, but we still have Scratch. He has become part of the family and the kids love him, but he's never more important than a human.

"I find that, in pastoral work, particularly after someone suffers a bereavement, the love and care which a person had for their loved one is projected on to their pet and, more so with dogs, that love is reciprocated.

"I've never really thought about a service like this, but there's a sense in which we're just out of Harvest and if we're thanking God for different aspects of the land and earth and God's provision, well, we could thank God for the companionship that animals give. This is all part of God's creation."

  • Pets Service, St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast, tomorrow, 3.30pm

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