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Blessing of the animals at St. Anthony School
John Dickert’s black Labrador Maggie, and Michael Pires’s Border Collie Jax, get to know each other before the blessing of the animals at St. Anthony School.

There are no animals on campus during the school year at St. Anthony’s School in Manteca. The exception is when the church celebrates the feast of St. Francis of Assisi in October and students are allowed to bring their pets for the annual blessing of the animals.

That was the occasion on Friday when the students, faculty and some parents gathered on the playground with several four-footed friends in tow, some sniffing around and others silent as a lamb. The larger pets — many of them of the canine variety — were brought by parents and grandparents of the younger students. A few of the older students like John Dickert and Michael Pires, both sixth graders, handled their own pets — a black Labrador named Maggie for John, and a Border Collie with the pet name Jax for Michael.

 Kindergartener Kylee Culham cuddled in her arms her well-behaved guinea pig, Roxy, during the blessing, while fourth grader Emily Pires kept her quiet pet rabbit, Jessie, in a small cage. For second grader Grace Ballardo, the “animal” she brought to be blessed was a bright orange betta fish which stayed in a small glass bowl that she used as an aquarium.

“I got it from the (recent parish) harvest festival,” Grace said, explaining where she obtained the exotic fish.

Standing next to her was her Nana Dolores who said, “I’m here to bring it (the fish) home” after the blessing.

The grandmother’s presence at the school’s annual tradition was not a one-time occasion. “I’ve been doing it (coming to the blessing of the animals) since she was in preschool,” she said, adding it’s always fascinating watching the students with their pets. “The kids are so exciting.”

While it was a fun and entertaining event, church pastor Father Chad Wahl made it into a prayerful occasion with the students reading fitting scripture readings prior to sprinkling holy water on the animals. In his brief homily during the short service, he also inculcated in the minds of the students and the adults present the importance of animals in their life.

Animals are part of God’s creation, as shown in the book of Genesis in the Bible. “They are part of human life,” he said.

They are also “symbolic reminders of salvation,” he noted, with Jesus known as the “Paschal Lamb.” Then there was the “giant fish” that figured prominently in the story of Jonah, and the role of the raven during the great flood in the time of Noah in the Old Testament.

“Animals are expressions of God’s love in a beautiful way,” and in a special way, he said.

As beautiful as sunset is, “you can’t take it and walk around with it” the way you can with animals, he noted.

They are special in that they provide comfort and friendship as well, he added.

Not only that. “Animals take care of us, oftentimes they protect us,” he said.

The annual blessing of animals is observed by the Catholic church to mark the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. He is the saint most closely associated with animals, who, according to his well-known life story of poverty and love for God, could communicate with animals and “rejoiced in the value and beauty animals bring to creation.”

It was in his honor that former Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio chose the name of St. Francis when he became pope in 2013 following the resignation of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.