Twice a year, the 18-foot-tall bronze doors of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City swing wide. The 106-year-old Episcopalian cathedral, which is also the seat of the Archdiocese of New York, offers daily religious services and hosts artists-in-residence as well as concerts, dances and readings year-round. But the magisterial main doors, three tons each, are only thrown open on Easter Sunday and for St. John the Divine’s most popular event, the Blessing of the Animals, on the feast day of St. Francis (the Sunday closest to October 4).
The ceremony fills the nave with people accompanied by dogs, cats and birds as well as more exotic creatures. (I once lived near the cathedral and can testify that the sight of more than a thousand people with their dogs, cats, snakes, fish and parakeets—plus an elephant, a camel, a pony, a pair of llamas and a cow, all standing in line for church on Sunday—is something to behold!) “There’s never any fighting,” says the Reverend Canon Alan Dennis, who believes the animals instinctively know they’re safe.
The procession into the church is unforgettable. After the humans and their animal companions are seated, the large and exotic animals enter through the great doors. The cathedral has even hosted a giraffe; the main vault is tall enough to fit the Statue of Liberty off her base—plenty of room for a giraffe.
St. Francis’s prayer, Canticle of the Sun , is read, in which Francis invokes Brother Sun and Sister Moon as evidence of the creator's grace. Dancers in white wave banners, the voices of the St. Francis Day Festival Choir rise and soar, and parishioners stand holding hands or raising their arms to the sounds of Paul Winter’s New Age composition, Missa Gaia, interwoven with the haunting cries of whale, wolf and loon. This is a modern spiritual event with deep and venerable roots.
Canon Dennis says he had one of life’s mystical experiences when, during a blessing, he stood next to a bald eagle. “The eagle was this far away from me,” says Dennis, gesturing with his hand a foot away from his head. “Well, I know you aren’t supposed to look into an eagle’s eyes, that that will make them attack, but I figured, the handler has him, so I looked. It was one of the most profound moments in my life. It was like looking into the universe.”
Although people begin lining up with their pets around seven in the morning, the service is so popular that many aren’t able to get in. To make sure no animal is missed, the members of the laity and the clergy rove, spending time outside blessing animals. “It’s the most wondrous thing,” says Dennis. “People will tell us the stories of their animals, and I’ll ask them what blessing they want. Maybe the dog’s having behavioral problems, so they’ll ask that I bless the dog and ask that they be a good dog.” Pro-animal and pro-environmental groups set up stalls, and dancers and musicians perform. It’s one of the Upper West Side’s most popular street fairs—children love the event.
The exotic animals come from a theatrical company, and the farm animals are from Green Chimneys, a 61-year-old school in upstate New York that uses animals, including therapy dogs, to help children with learning and emotional problems. “Everyone loves our llamas, Java and Lily,” says Green Chimneys staffer Deborah Bernstein, “but my favorite is Lucy the goose.”
Students from Green Chimneys, participants in the school’s “Farm on the Moo-ve” program, a project that takes Green Chimneys’ animals into the community, are also part of the procession. Children bring animals to nursing homes, community centers and schools to demonstrate their care and as outreach. Participation in Farm on the Moo-ve is a great honor; students work hard to be allowed to join, and their success as animal handlers (and people) is a tribute to their personal growth.
Farm on the Moo-ve is only part of Green Chimneys’ mission to use animals to help children. Students too shy or lacking enough confidence in their skills to read aloud to a person often lose their shyness when reading to a Golden Retriever. Deborah Bernstein recalls how, when the school had two artic foxes, children with ADD who couldn’t sit still more than a few minutes would wait patiently in silence for half an hour to see the foxes creep out of their dens. “The positive behaviors they learn with animals move into their interactions with humans,” says Bernstein, whose daughter attends the school and has a close attachment to the Green Chimney’s pet rats.
The cathedral initiated the Blessing of the Animals in 1985. A few years earlier, they had commissioned artist-in-residence Paul Winter to write a modern ecclesiastical mass based on medieval traditions. The result was Missa Gaia, an environmentally inspired mass to the Earth. Winter had been mixing environmental sounds with jazz for years, but the Missa Gaia, which debuted at the cathedral in 1981, was radical in its vision of combining spirituality with environmental themes in a piece of Christian music.
Although the Episcopal Church does not formally recognize Francis as the patron saint of the environment, he plays that role for many, so the Feast of St. Francis seemed a natural time to perform the piece. Four years later, the cathedral added the Blessing of the Animals service, bringing an ancient tradition to a modern, pet-loving city.
“I remember at one point during a sermon” says Paul Winter, laughing. “The priest went, ‘And the Lord said…’ and there was a pause, and from the back came a big Woof!”
The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine 
Photographs courtesy Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine; photo of man with dog by Kara Flannery.