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Paws and worship

Ministry embraces pet owners, animals

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By Bella English
Globe Staff / May 30, 2011

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DANVERS — Jim and Lynda Juppe take their little ones to church, and the girls both wear their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes.

Pallina, 8, is decked out in her favorite dress, with a red rhinestone barrette in her hair. Her fingernails are painted pink. Mia, 9, is the tomboy in the family and sports a black faux-leather jacket and some Bruins beads.

The Rev. Thea Keith-Lucas welcomes everyone to Calvary Episcopal Church. There are hymns, readings, a sermon, prayers, offering, and communion. There are also woofs, arfs, growls, panting tongues, and wagging tails.

Mia and Pallina, Yorkshire terriers, are perfect young ladies, sitting in the laps of the Juppes. But Riley, a golden retriever, can scarcely contain herself, straining at the leash to get a closer look at Nibbles, a German shepherd.

“If you need anything for cleaning up, it’s all over to the side,’’ Keith-Lucas tells the parishioners, waving a hand toward a table with spray bottles and paper towels.

Welcome to the Perfect Paws Pet Ministry, which marked its first anniversary this month. To celebrate, there’s cake and cookies for the humans, dog cupcakes and chewies for their pets. Folding chairs are set up in the parish hall — “it’s easier to clean,’’ explains the minister — and a few dozen people, two dozen dogs in tow, fill them.

The idea for the ministry had its roots in an annual “blessing of the animals’’ in a local park, which attracts dozens of celebrants. Keith-Lucas thought a regular service might be a good way to draw newcomers by celebrating all of God’s creatures and the human-animal bond.

“I think that relationship can be a way people experience God’s unconditional love, and they feel called to look beyond their needs and help another being, and that can help them grow spiritually,’’ she said.

But what about traditionalists who might say that church is no place for animals? After a local newspaper reported last year on the new service, some online commentators took issue. One accused Keith-Lucas of “making a mockery of Christ and his church . . . by turning the church into a dog pound.’’ Someone else called her “dogmatic.’’

At Our Lady of Mount Carmel Mission in East Boston, Sister Mary Bernadette said she believes a church service that includes animals is distracting.

“We go to church to worship God and raise our minds and hearts to God,’’ she said. “Now you put a kitty on my lap and I’m going to be very divided. God made the kitty, it is true, and as much as the animals can have a place in our life, when it comes to those moments where we are coming before God, humans can do that in a manner that animals can’t.’’

But others defend the service — some citing St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals.

“The heart of our service is our belief that God loves all creatures. It’s all about asking the Holy Spirit to change our hearts so we can be in harmony with all God’s creatures,’’ she said. Indeed, each service includes a spoken covenant “with our animal companions’’ and asks God to protect and bless, strengthen and heal them.

Perfect Paws Pet Ministry, which appears to be the only one of its kind in the country, welcomes all animals — as long as they’re well behaved, on leashes or in carriers, said Fran Weil, a parishioner now known as “the pet chaplain.’’

Weil said she thoroughly researched animal ministries and got some tips from Canines at Covenant, held in a Presbyterian church in Los Angeles. “But they only take dogs,’’ she said.

At Calvary, people have brought cats, gerbils, guinea pigs and even a rat named Shimmer. But the majority of the visitors are dogs. They range from rescue mutts of dubious parentage to a powder puff Chinese crested, and from 4-pound Pallina, the teacup Yorkie, to 131-pound Cleopatra, a sprawling Newfoundland.

“It’s nice to share a religious experience with my pets,’’ said Lynda Juppe, who lives in Tewksbury. “ ‘God’ is ‘dog’ spelled backwards. Here, you know you’re with dog people, and you can’t go wrong with dog people.’’

The inspiration for the pet service came on Palm Sunday a year ago. Weil and Gail Arnold were ushering at church that day; after the service, they had to euthanize their beloved West Highland terrier, Preston, who had cancer. During the service, Keith-Lucas asked worshipers to say a prayer for Weil, Arnold, and Preston.

“It was so loving and people were so supportive, and it meant so much to us,’’ said Weil. “I told Thea we should do a service like this. And she loved the idea.’’ Weil has since started a pet bereavement support group.

Keith-Lucas said Perfect Paws Pet Ministry has worked out perfectly, though she did have some initial qualms. “I had no idea what it would be like on the first day. How do people stay in a prayerful mindset with their pets for that length of time?’’

Some who attend the half-hour Sunday service at 5 p.m. are longtime congregants; others have joined since the pet ministry began. “What’s extraordinary to me is that we have built a very solid group of 40 to 50 every single Sunday from all over,’’ said Weil. “Some haven’t been to church in eons. They love the idea that you can bring your animal and enjoy this space and peace.’’

Keith-Lucas — who has two young children but no pets, yet — calls it “a real privilege’’ to bless human-animal relationships. There is also plenty of comic relief. Last Christmas, she made a crèche and invited people to put photos of their animals around the baby Jesus. Then she asked everyone to sing “Silent Night.’’

“All the dogs were barking at each other, and people cracked up,’’ she said.

Still, she and others say that though there’s an initial racket, once the service starts, the animals mostly settle down. “Call it what you want to call it, but I think it’s a spiritual thing,’’ said Erika Bianchi of Middleton, who does the readings each month.

Her words are nearly swallowed as Nibbles, a German shepherd bomb-sniffing war veteran, barks at Chloe, a Lhasa Apso shelter dog who is draped across Leon Pechinksy’s lap.

Cleopatra, the Newfie, is stretched out at the feet of her owner, Roseann Benson. During the “Lord’s Prayer,’’ Benson sits on the floor, praying and rubbing Cleo’s chest. Cleo licks her hand.

“I’m actually Catholic, and Cleo’s now an Episcopalian — we’re a house divided,’’ said Benson, who lives in Beverly. “It’s nice to bring her to church, and the service is very similar to Catholic Mass.’’

There’s even communion, which Keith-Lucas delivered to the seats.

Bill Hooper is there from Hamilton with his two recently rescued Siberian huskies, Scout and Katan. Katan follows the time-honored tradition of falling asleep during the sermon. During communion, Scout sniffs around as if to say, “Hey, where’s mine?’’

Keith-Lucas said a prayer for animals affected by the recent flooding in the South, and then prays for ill and deceased dogs, while congregants call out pet names to be prayed for.

At the service’s end, folks line up with their pets for a blessing from Keith-Lucas, who kneels down to the animal’s level. Frank Costa of Dudley is there with Lady, his basset hound. Costa is soon going in for bypass surgery. Keith-Lucas said a prayer for him and a blessing for Lady.

Isabel Pizzano tells the minister that her West Highland terrier, Benjamin, might need surgery. “Dear Lord,’’ said Keith-Lucas, “We ask you to bless Benjamin to go through surgery safely and return to his friendship with Isabel and the wonder of creation.’’ Pizzano smiles, Benjamin yips.

The service over, everyone heads over to the tables for treats. The chewies go fast.

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.