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Pooches take the pulpit

Father Roy Snipes has more assistance than most priests in Masses, counseling sessions and confessions: his dogs. The big mixed-breeds — sometimes as many as five of them — provide the extra dollop of warmth and joviality that can open hearts wider to receive the good father’s message.

Clerical canines: Father Roy Snipes of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Mission, Texas, with Chunkly, left, Puebla and Bendito, all in vestments.

Clerical canines: Father Roy Snipes of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Mission, Texas, with Chunkly, left, Puebla and Bendito, all in vestments.

“Church can have a tendency to feel rigid and frigid to people,” he says. That dissolves when he walks into Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Mission, Texas, with his mutt pack trailing behind his robes. The dogs sometimes veer off from the processional to prowl the pews, greeting favorite people, but during Mass they generally lie quietly at the altar (though one has taken to curling up in the celebrant’s chair, so Sikes has to perch on its edge).

He’s so convinced of the power of the animals that when a newcomer complains (rarely), he says gently, “If you want to look for a church that doesn’t have dogs, I’m sure you’ll find one.” He reminds them Jesus was born surrounded by animals. “In this dehumanized era, I believe dogs are the angels that will keep us human.”

Snipes, a self-proclaimed cowboy preacher who relishes a Lone Star beer after Mass and loves country music, is an avid dog rescuer (he has 13, though only five are interested in church). He first began sharing Mass with a dog in 1985. That was the late mahogany-colored Magna, who gained such acclaim the city named a street after her.

Snipes may be a trailblazer, but he’s not alone. The pooches-in-the-pulpit trend is quickly gaining converts.

Call them ‘ministry dogs’

There has even emerged new vocabulary — “ministry dog” — to describe animals with service-dog training that are matched up with faith leaders. Tiger, a Labrador retriever trained by NEADS (National Education of Assistance Dogs Services) in Princeton, Mass., was, in the end, not assigned to a disabled person because of a safety quirk — hesitancy around statues. But that’s not a problem for Ami Sawtelle, who ministers at three Boothbay Harbor, Maine, United Methodist churches.

Tiger accompanies her to worship services, visits ailing congregants and calms nerves in ER waiting rooms. A veterinarian before becoming a pastor, Sawtelle sought a ministry dog because she understood the tenderness a dog can bring to difficult times.

As an added boon, the extroverted pooch, which is trained to, among other things, switch lights on and off and open doors, “introduces me to people all the time.”

Most of the dogs taking on churchly duties, however, aren’t specially trained, but are simply pets with a penchant for pastoral care.

Sit, stay, hear confession

In Baden, Mo., Elijah, the border collie-Labrador pet of Father Don Buhr, is known far and wide as The Church Dog. “He owns this place,” says Buhr with a laugh. “The rectory, the church, he goes wherever he wants.”

Elijah sticks close to the altar of Our Lady of the Holy Cross during Mass, but greets parishioners before and after “with a big goofy grin.”

When Buhr came to this church in 2010, he declared “if Elijah distracts you from prayer” the dog wouldn’t be permitted in church. Elijah stayed. He even sits in on confessions and goes on sick calls. “The great majority like him,” Buhr says. “The rest ignore him.”

Pastor R. Kelly Harvell ministers to two Methodist churches in New Hampshire — in Whitefield and Bethlehem — with pet French bulldog Carny, 11, who appears on the website and attends four services every week.

During church, Carny lies on his bed beside the pulpit, but sometimes wanders off to work the pews. “I can always tell where he is … because people’s faces light up,” says Harvell. Some congregants get a special visit because Carny senses they’re struggling in some way. “He seems very aware of who needs him.”


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This entry was posted on January 15, 2012 by in General News Stories.
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