A camel led the animal procession down the main aisle of an uptown Gothic Cathedral on Sunday during the Feast of St. Francis celebration.
The annual feast drew more than 3,000 humans and pets to The Cathedral Church of St. John Divine for the blessing of the animals. Parishioners watched wide-eyed as a cow, three stubborn llamas, a tortoise on a cart, and a litany of other animals followed in the camel’s footsteps.
Crowds lined the block that morning, arriving as early as 7 a.m. for the 10 :30 service, hoping to score passes to the cathedral event. Owners were eager to obtain the bishop’s benediction for their pets, “It’s part of my belief, I think all of God’s animals need blessings,” said poodle owner Kevin Thomason who arrived at St. John’s before eight.
During the mass, Bishop Andrew ML Dietsche’s politically charged sermon touched upon recent climate change agreements and individuals rejecting the science behind global warming. “In a time when we allow even science itself to be debunked, not just challenged which of course it should be, but debunked and treated as though it’s nothing different from the many other opinions that people may have,” said the Bishop. “Climate change, the word itself, becomes dirty, political.”
The feast, honoring St. Francis, celebrates the legacy of this patron saint of animals and ecology. An Italian citizen during the 12th century, Francis of Assisi embraced a life of abject poverty and spent much of his time seeking peace for lepers and Muslims. Known for preaching sermons to assemblies of wild birds, he deemed all creatures as equally deserving of God’s love.
The Missa Gaia, or Earth Mass, composed by artists in residence Paul Winter and Paul Halley, was performed by a choir of hundreds. Dance performances dotted the ceremony, performers draped in bright garb used the altar and aisles as their stage. Koi kites and flags circled the audience. Drums pounded an incessant rhythm. Loon cries and guttural snarls sounded as dancers faded out of sight.
St. John’s has a history of rarely abiding by Christian norms, blending its Episcopal heritage with pagan, Jewish and various other influences. This mass was no different, incorporating these unorthodox artistic elements into the traditional mass setting. A reading from the Holy Quran took the stead of a bible reading. One dance performance reflected pagan characteristics and two large menorahs occupied prominent positions behind the altar.
Following the ceremony, the Bishop lingered on the front steps. The procession exited the main doors, and animals provided by Dawn Animal Agency made their way down the steps to receive a blessing. Crowds watched on as the Right Reverend blessed dozens of Samoyeds, Chihuahuas, parakeets, and several overweight cats.