A chorus of barks, meows and chirps filled the playground of St. Mary of the Assumption Elementary School in Santa Maria on Wednesday, as students, staff and their animal counterparts joined numerous Roman Catholics around the globe in the annual Blessing of the Animals ceremony.
Held on or near Oct. 4, the ceremony honors St. Francis of Assisi, a late-12th century Catholic friar and founder of the Catholic Church's Franciscan order largely remembered for his generosity and love of animals.
"We're honoring St. Francis of Assisi who was known for his love of and care for animals and the environment," said Michelle Cox, principal at St. Mary of the Assumption School. "The prayer service is part of our normal blessings; it's part of our history, tradition and ritual."
She added: "This is to remind us how much [St. Francis of Assisi] cared for animals. We want to be reminded of his message and [recognize] how much animals do for us."
Deacon Zenon Nawrocik opened the morning prayer service by reminding attendees of the blessing's significance and spoke about the biblical link between humans and animals.
"[Animals] share the forces of human existence and have a part in human life," he said. "God confers his gifts on all living things, as often we need the service of animals or made them symbolic reminders: Animals were saved from the [Great] Flood and afterwards became part of the covenant of Noah; a giant fish saved Jonah; ravens brought bread to Elijah."
Following a reading from the Bible and prayer service, Nawrocik and deacon Dennis Pearson blessed students and their pets with holy water. Cox called the event a good opportunity for students to engage with the Catholic faith and said it provides them with a relatable, hands-on opportunity to apply it to their everyday lives.
"It makes the [Catholic] faith come alive; it makes it real and connects in their lives on a personal level," she said. "Many students have pets, so it's something they can relate to."
Guadalupe Valdoviros brought five 3-week-old Australian shepherd puppies. Sebastian Chavez took his hermit crab Jack Jack. Federico Munoz was joined by Thumperette, his pet rabbit. For those who could not bring their pet, Cox encouraged them to bring a stuffed animal to "to represent the pets they care for and the animals they love in their life."
Fifth-grade student Izel Lopez, 10, took Cox's advice and brought her stuffed dog to the blessing. While she enjoyed having her toy dog with her, she wishes she could have brought a real one.
"My parents don't want any pets," she said, explaining why she brought her stuffed animal. "My mom does want a pet, but my dad doesn't want to clean up after it."
Her classmate Eduardo Rosillio, 10, brought his fish, Tomato and Joe, to the blessing. While the fish are relatively healthy and "doing OK," Eduardo said he brought them anyway.
"I brought my fish to get them blessed," he said. While Eduardo enjoys fish because they are easier to care for, he, like Izel, "kind of hopes to get a dog."
"My sister wants one; we're hopefully going to get one next year," he said, adding that he'd really like a German shepherd.