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Students, staff and their four-legged companions gathered at St. Mary of the Assumption Elementary School in Santa Maria on Thursday to join Roman Catholics around the globe in recognition of the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi and annual Blessing of the Animals ceremony.

A longtime tradition within the Catholic Church, the Oct. 4 ceremony honors St. Francis of Assisi, a late-12th century Catholic friar and founder of the Catholic Church's Franciscan order. Remembered for his generosity, patronage of the environment and lover of animals, owners and their pets line up each year to receive a blessing from the church reverend. 

"In the Catholic Church, when something is blessed ... it is a reminder for us with our relationship with God," explained Michelle Cox, St. Mary's principal. "We bless ourselves when we walk into the church and offer blessings to each other. On feast day, we bless our animals."

After opening the morning with prayer service led by third-grade students, church deacons Zenon Nawrocik and Romeo Mabansag spoke to students about the blessing's significance and biblical link between humans and animals. Reading from Genesis, Mabansag told students that God created man to "have dominion over the fish of the sea, birds of the air and all the living things that move on the earth." Nawrocik added that companion animals are an important aspect of that.

A small crowd gathered around seventh-grader Landon Ontiveros to fawn over Teddy, the Lhasapoo (Lhasa apso and poodle mix), he cradled in his arms. Seth Tobias brought his pair of year-old turtles Crush and Blush. Protection and health are the reasons why fourth-grade student Jaela Dillon and her mother, Aubrey, brought Bentley, their Yorkshire terrier, to the ceremony. 

Students who were unable to bring their pets to school held framed photos of their animal companions, while others clutched stuffed animals of various shapes and sizes. 

"Some families don't have pets for various reasons, but we want the children to be thinking about their responsibility and care for God's creations," Cox explained. "They bring stuffed animals to represent the animals they care for even if they're not in their home."

According to Cox, celebrations like the Feast of St. Franciscan "bring faith to life" and makes students excited and eager to share Catholic traditions with others.

"We're always trying to help the children see the liturgical year of the church," she said. "We have a calendar of feast days to remember saints, martyrs and the different seasons of the church that carry us through our spiritual journey. St. Francis is just one of many people who made good choices before us and are great examples [for our students.]"

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.