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Bless the Beast

Father Rob Irwin meets with Sophie in the shadow of a statue of St. Francis and a wolf. (Baker City Herald/Lisa Britton).
Father Rob Irwin meets with Sophie in the shadow of a statue of St. Francis and a wolf. (Baker City Herald/Lisa Britton).

By LISA BRITTON

Of the Baker City Herald

It wasn't quite a scene from Noah's ark.

Only two dogs — each a different breed — were brought to St. Elizabeth Health Services to be blessed by Father Rob Irwin on Friday, Oct. 3.

But numbers didn't matter as Irwin recognized both dogs during the "blessing of the animals" service, held in honor of St. Francis of Assisi.

As the robed bronze figure of St. Francis silently kept watch, Irwin sprinkled water upon canines Daisy and Sophie during the service.

This celebration — held either on or near the feast of St. Francis on Oct. 4 — is observed around the world.

"Ever since St. Francis was around — he started the blessing of the animals," Irwin said.

The saint was also the first to organize a manger scene that included live animals.

Francis, an Italian Roman Catholic friar who lived from 1182 to 1226, was known for his love of the animal kingdom.

He even befriended a pack of wolves, Irwin said.

"There was a pack of wolves around that bothered the town," Irwin said. "St. Francis went down and made friends with them and they haven't been bothered since in Assisi."

The statue at the hospital entrance depicts St. Francis with a wolf kneeling at his feet.

The statue was erected in 1987 as a memorial to Stephen Busch, the son of former hospital administrator Walter Busch.

Stephen died suddenly at the age of 18.

"(Walter) wanted the statue of St. Francis — someone up in Joseph did it," said Betty Kimbell, who works in the hospital's accounting department.

A short service for the animals

Prior to sprinkling a blessing upon the heads of the dogs, Irwin said a short Mass.

"The animals of God's creation inhabit the land, the sky, the sea. A giant fish saved Jonah, and a raven brought fish to Elijah," he said.

"Let us praise our Creator and thank Him for setting us above all creatures of the Earth. Blessed are you, oh Lord, who gave us the animals."

Though only two dogs showed up this year — accompanying their owners Judy Karstens and Arda Johnson — in the past Irwin has blessed canines, cats, sheep, horses — even a few snakes.

"I make sure they hold on to them," Irwin smiled.

Baker City's blessing ceremony differs a bit from most since it isn't held at the cathedral.

Irwin said the hospital is a more appropriate place to honor St. Francis of Assisi because the medical facility was founded by the Sisters of St. Francis in the 1890s.

Francis founded the Franciscan order in 1209.

"They'd normally do it at the church, but we thought we'd do it here in honor of the sisters," Irwin said.

Blessing only several dogs and cats at a time is a different approach as well.

"In the good old days, they'd go out and bless whole flocks," Irwin said.

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