Catholic San Francisco


(Courtesy National Shrine of St. Francis)

Visitors to Saint Francis Rest pet columbarium and hall of honor would be greeted by backlit stained-glass art pieces of St. Francis surrounded by the animals he loved so much. At right, the hall of honor would be reserved for service animals, many of

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Animal columbarium set for St. Francis shrine
July 3rd, 2013
By Rick DelVecchio

What better testament to the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi than a sacred place perpetually honoring God’s animal kingdom and those who protect the animals, and in the heart of the city of St. Francis, no less?

That is the idea behind Saint Francis Rest, a proposed animal columbarium – a vault with niches for funeral urns to be stored – that would be built in the church basement at the National Shrine of St. Francis in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco.

Then-shrine rector Capuchin Father Gregory Coiro, then rector-designate and, as of July 1, Father Coiro’s successor Capuchin Father Harold Snider, and the Capuchins’ Western America provincial minister Father Matthew Elshoff outlined the plan in an article sent June 22 to Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone and other archdiocesan leaders.

“Probably no saint is more closely associated with animals in the popular imagination than Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century founder of religious orders dedicated to the service of the poor and the marginalized,” the Capuchin fathers wrote. “The reason people so closely identify him with the animals is because of his belief that all creation mirrors the beauty and love of God the creator, especially the birds of the air, the fishes in the sea, and the beasts upon the land, all of whom he called ‘brother’ and ‘sister.’

“In celebrating the connectedness of all creation, especially the close ties between human beings and the animal kingdom, Francis never lost sight of the uniqueness that people possess because only they are created in the image and likeness of God and only they can be the recipients of the graces of the redemption offered through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” they wrote. “Francis’ love for all of creation was no New Age pantheism that says all things are part of God; rather, for Francis, creation serves as a mirror reflecting the presence of the creator.”

St. Francis’ affinity with creation, especially the animals, is already a source of celebration at the shrine, with its mural of the Poverello preaching to birds and the blessing of the animals that takes place annually in Franciscan churches around the world on Oct. 4, his feast day.

Installing a pet columbarium in the shrine “makes perfect sense,” the fathers said in their article.

More than 500 people entered the shrine church on the weekend of June 15-16 to experience the blessing of the animals. Not all brought pets and not all were believers, but “all shared a common bond with God’s creation and his animal kingdom,” the fathers wrote.

When Father Coiro announced the planned columbarium, the congregation burst into applause, “which prompted more than a few appreciative howls from the dogs in the pews.”

The fathers believe the response indicated that there is an unmet need in San Francisco for a place to memorialize pets. They also believe “the columbarium will offer the opportunity to catechize and evangelize people on the proper understanding of creation and the role of animals in it according to sound Catholic theology and authentic Franciscan spirituality.”

But more than anything else, the congregation’s response reflected animal owners’ love for their pets and service animals, the fathers wrote.

“It is doubtful that you will find a blind person who experiences new freedom through their guide dog; or a child with seizures who can be monitored from injury more closely by the alert of a trained dog warning of impending seizures; or a surgical patient calmed by the presence of a companion animal who would not understand the true interrelatedness of all of nature and see the presence of the Lord in one of his unique and special gifts to humankind,” they wrote.

“Could one find a military man or woman in a war zone who will not express love for a trained dog who saved him and his companions from IEDs at the expense of critical injuries or its own life; or a police officer or his/her partner who will not dedicate his every waking moment to tend to the injuries of a service dog who has taken the bullet meant for him – many of these dogs are actually considered sworn officers of the police departments in which they serve,” the fathers wrote.

Funded by donations and interment fees at an estimated cost of $100,000 to $125,000, the columbarium would occupy what is now a catacomb-like empty space under the steps of the shrine church on Vallejo Street, divided by foot-thick arched concrete buttresses supporting the stairs and with part of the original 1849 church wall exposed.

Visitors would pass through a glass entry door to arrive at an entrance hall featuring a back-lit stained-glass art piece of St. Francis surrounded by animals. The cremated animal remains would be interred in niches in an upper and lower hall. The niches would be designed to allow urns, pictures and small memorabilia to be permanently displayed – each location a site of living history for the many families who truly mourn their deceased animal companions. The niches – the goal is 1,000 – would be in varying sizes and locations to offers families a range of choices to memorialize large or small pets or multiple pets.

The hall of honor would be a special area reserved for animals who have served in the military, police agencies and search and rescue – sometimes giving their lives in the process.

A place of honor for “animals that lived and died in service of the human community” would show that animals not only serve as companions but also help us live safely, Father Coiro told Catholic San Francisco.

Father Coiro said people who bring their pets to the shrine to be blessed “don’t have to be Catholic” and religion will not be a factor for animal interment at St. Francis Rest. “The animals have no religion,” he said.

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From July 5, 2013 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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