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Pets In Church*

March 10, 2004

Houses of Worship

Are Reaching Out

To a Flock of Pets

Purr Box Goes to Communion

At St. Francis Episcopal;

A Group 'Bark Mitzvah'



For the first time in 10 years, Mary Wilkinson went to church one Sunday in January. She sat in a back pew at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Stamford, Conn., flipping through a prayer book and listening intently to the priest's sermon.

What drew Ms. Wilkinson back into the fold was a new monthly program the church introduced -- Holy Communion for pets. As part of the service, the 59-year-old retired portfolio manager carried her 17-year-old tiger cat to the altar, waited in line behind three panting dogs to receive the host and had a special benediction performed for her cat, Purr Box Jr. "I like that the other parishioners are animal people," Ms. Wilkinson says.

With pews hard to fill, a small number of otherwise-traditional clergy are welcoming animals into the flock. Some are creating pet-friendly worship services, while others have started making house calls for sick animals. Some are starting to accompany pet owners to the vet when they euthanize a beloved pet. Occasionally, clergy are even officiating at pet funerals and group "bark mitzvahs." Congregants at temple Beth Shir Sholom, in Santa Monica, Calif., have an animal prayer sung to the tune of "Sabbath Prayer," a song from "Fiddler on the Roof": "May our God protect and defend you. May God always shield you from fleas."

All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has doubled attendance at its Sunday evening service since it began last summer to invite pets once a month. It wanted to attract people who walked their dogs on the church grounds. "We call it evangelism," says Rector Sherod Mallow. "It's opening your doors to the different needs of the community."

Pet services are aiming to draw in the elderly, many of whom rely on pets as their only companions, and people who have strayed from religion because it no longer seemed relevant. The effort is part of a larger movement among houses of worship to attract worshipers by offering amenities considered important to modern lives. In recent years, churches and synagogues have added everything from in-house Starbucks cafes and sports clubs to special worship services for children and singles.

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