On a balmy, blue-skied October morning, throngs of people and their pets flocked to Morningside Heights to congregate on the Pulpit Green at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Paws, hooves, fins, and feathers from all over New York City came together on Sunday to be blessed for the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. The Christian feast, which honors the patron saint of animals and the environment, is celebrated annually by the Upper West Side Cathedral. Aside from the blessing of the animals, the festivities featured live-streamed ceremonial music from Missa Gaia sung by the Cathedral Choir and featuring Paul Winter and Company with Forces of Nature Dance Company, as well as a sprightly performance from the Mettawee River Theatre company.
The Cathedral’s immense size and sprawling grounds make it the perfect place to hold such an event — past years’ celebrations have featured sizable guests such as elephants, llamas, emus, and camels. Fitted with an ivory carriage lined with red-leather seating, one standout animal attendee was King, a male, chestnut-brown colored NYC carriage horse. King’s carriage driver, Christina Hansen, is one of many drivers sponsored by the union, TWU Local 100. She observed that while she had been to many iterations of the blessing of the animals feast with King and other carriage horses, “This is the first time that we’ve come all the way up here. I’ve been working with King for nine years and he’s been a carriage horse here in New York for eighteen years. He’s a ham, he loves all the attention he’s getting right now.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, other notable guests at the event included a swarm of honeybees. The “Divine Bees,” as they are aptly named, live in the gardens at St. John the Divine, and were contained in a glass display case on one of a number of tables that lined the Cathedral’s side walkway. Beekeeper in residence at St. John the Divine, Nicole Toutounji, spoke about how she found herself amongst the bees at the Cathedral after spending many years as a photographer and photo editor at UNICEF.
Lively festival music emanated from elsewhere on the green, mingling with her words as Toutounji spoke. “I read a book about the history of bees, and then took a class on bees in Central Park — I fell in love. This was ten years ago, and it’s my passion now — it’s a contribution ... to the well-being of all of us and the earth. And the bees love it here. They pollinate in Morningside Park. I can’t wait for the bees to be blessed today,” she said.
The considerable outdoor space afforded by the venue is especially useful amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While the Cathedral held last year’s Feast of St. Francis virtually, this year’s service was a combination of live-streamed and in-person gatherings. Canon Patrick Malloy, who has served as the subdean of the Cathedral for the past five and a half years, spoke about the “hybrid” nature of the service. “Last year, we did the whole thing virtually. For some of us, it was easier, but for the people in our production department, it was much more demanding. So this year, what we ended up with was a hybrid. We did have service inside, but the only people present were the musicians, the dancers, the clergy, and the lay liturgical ministers. So this is really right down the middle of what we did many years ago, and what we did last year,” he noted.
Malloy also addressed some of the recent changes that the Cathedral has seen as a result of the pandemic, chiefly, the recent implementation of a vaccine requirement to visit St. John the Divine. “When we had to lock this place down, it was monumental. In the history of the Cathedral, it had never happened,” he said. “Now, we require that anyone coming into the building has to be vaccinated. But we really see this as part of our Christian obligation to take care of people, and that we don’t mean it to be punitive at all. We want to create an atmosphere where people feel safe in the church.”
Prior to entry of the event, attendees had to pass through a security check on Amsterdam Avenue, where the Cathedral is located. They were also required to wear a mask while outside for the celebration on the Pulpit Green. However, despite the modified format of the event, all (human and animal) were in good spirits. Canon Malloy said, “People come back every year for this day, people we know and people we don’t. It’s a wonderful opportunity to bring all kinds of new people within our orbit.”