Danvers church finds connection with pet owners

The Rev. Thea Keith-Lucas blesses a pet owner and her dogs at a recent service. The Rev. Thea Keith-Lucas blesses a pet owner and her dogs at a recent service.

(Lisa Poole for The Boston Globe)
By Wendy Killeen
Globe Correspondent / March 3, 2011

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When Fran Weil and Gail Arnold were dealing with the imminent death of their West Highland white terrier last March, the rector at Calvary Episcopal Church in Danvers mentioned them during a Sunday service.

“We particularly want to say a prayer for Preston, Fran, and Gail,’’ said the Rev. Thea Keith-Lucas.

“It was touching for me to have that acknowledged in such a lovely, warm, and public way,’’ said Weil, of Danvers. “So, I went up to Thea afterward and said, ‘We should think about having a pet ministry,’ and in her characteristic way, she said, ‘OK.’ ’’

After much research, the Perfect Paws Pet Ministry was launched at the church in May. “It’s been quite a ride,’’ Weil said.

The pet ministry service takes place the third Sunday of each month, from 5 to 5:30 p.m. It attracts 25 to 40 people, many of whom bring their dogs and a few who bring cats. Most are not regular church members.

The pet ministry also includes a pet bereavement support group, led by Weil. There is talk of forming a pet food pantry. Other churches have expressed interest in using the ministry — the only one of its kind in New England — as a model.

“I expected it to be interesting, challenging, and fun, and it has been all of those things,’’ said Keith-Lucas.

Not all of the attention it’s attracted has been welcome. One news service reported it “under ‘News of the Weird,’ which is not really what I wanted to see, ’’ the minister said.

“Some reports made it sound like we were trying to save the souls of dogs, which is not only unnecessary but not advisable,’’ Keith-Lucas said. “I don’t really think it makes a difference to the dogs whether they get brought to church. It’s a spiritual outreach to people through their animals.’’

Keith-Lucas said the pet ministry, which is open to all faiths, also is related to the Episcopal Church’s belief that human beings are stewards of the earth and have a responsibility to respect and care for all life.

Held in the Cherry Street church’s downstairs parish hall, the service includes time for people and pets to socialize. It offers prayers to protect, strengthen, and heal animals that are abused, lonely, injured, or ill. It remembers animals that have died. It also asks people to be mindful of the responsibility to care for animals, and to be thankful for “the gift of these precious friends.’’

While serious in some aspects, the service is low-key and relaxed, punctuated with an occasional bark.

“It’s a good landing place for people who haven’t done church before or have not had a good experience,’’ Keith-Lucas said. “We hope this is expanding people’s idea of what church can be.’’

“It’s a lovely, simple service,’’ said Weil. “People come here and leave uplifted. It’s just a very special thing. It’s a community of people who care about animals.’’

Don and Debbie Mailloux of Rockland called Calvary when their 12-year-old Yorkshire terrier, Bella, died in August. “We couldn’t get anyone else to do a pet service,’’ said Debbie Mailloux. “We called them out of the blue, and they came right down. We’ve become good friends.’’

The couple drive an hour to attend the monthly service. “We come for the support and people who understand,’’ she said.

On a recent Sunday, they brought a cake for everyone to share after the service in celebration of what would have been Bella’s 13th birthday. With them were their two newly adopted Yorkies, Lucy and Ethel.

Frank Costa of Beverly came to Calvary with his 9-year-old basset hound, Loni, when she was sick. “It was comforting,’’ he said. “It made it a lot easier when I had to put her down.’’

Now he and his new 2-year-old basset, Lady, attend the service regularly. “It’s meeting the people, and the fact that the dogs are friends. It’s companionship,’’ he said.

Bonnie DiMarino participated in the bereavement group after her German shepherd, Wolf, died of a heart ailment when he was 7. It opened her to the idea of getting another dog, and she now attends the service with her white German shepherd, Bear.

“I come because I am thankful for him,’’ DiMarino said.

Keith-Lucas said she is herself thankful for the success of the ministry.

“I didn’t expect how quickly and deeply we would begin to connect with people and their real spiritual needs,’’ she said. “The pet ministry is a place not to just bring their dog, but to bring the concerns of their heart.’’

For more information about the church’s pet ministry, call 978- 774-1150 or visit