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Priests and their dogs — More than just parish mascot; ‘good for the soul’

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Father John Gayton and Roxie. Dialog photo/Mike Lang

People get pets for all kinds of reasons, and those apply to priests as much as anyone. Several priests in the Diocese of Wilmington have four-legged companions waiting for them at their homes, and in many cases the pets accompany them to parish events and are part of the fabric of the parish community.

Father Jim Hreha has been a dog owner for decades, always Olde English Bulldogges. Jack, his current canine, is 5 years old and is a fixture at St. Polycarp in Smyrna and St. Dennis in Galena, Md., the two parishes Father Hreha leads.

“That dog has come into the chancery office, the bishop’s office. That dog goes with me everywhere except for the sacraments,” he said.

He said his mother told him the dog was the last animal named by God, and it is “God” spelled backward. In the story of Lazarus, the leper, his sores were licked by dogs. St. Roch, the patron saint of dogs, was befriended by a dog in the forest as he waited in the forest to die from the plague. The dog licked his sores and brought him food, and St. Roch was able to recover.

The Dominican religious order sometimes uses a black and white dog as an informal symbol of the friars and religious sisters.
“A dog shows the nature of God,” Father Hreha said.

The priest worked with dogs while a police officer, so his pets “are always impeccably trained.” That is important when Jack — who weighs 70 pounds — is around parishioners.

“If you’re playing with a 70- or 90-pound dog, you have to be able to trust that that dog is going to mix in with the parishioners and never have a problem. I have that dog trained. He’ll never jump up on anybody. He will lay down on the floor and let a crawler maul him,” he said.

He likes the Olde English Bulldogge because of their docile nature and temperament around people. Jack, he said, makes him look better.

“Jack builds my stock. People who think I’m an obnoxious pastor love Jack, and therefore, I become better because of the dog,” he said.

Msgr. Steven Hurley takes a drive with is pal Jake.

Msgr. Steven Hurley has another big breed, a black Labrador retriever, at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Wilmington, where he has been pastor for almost 10 years. Jake, a rescue, has been with him almost as long.

The Hurley family always had labs and German shepherds, so he is used to larger dogs. Msgr. Hurley lives by himself at St. Thomas, so when he moved there, he decided the time was right to get another pet.

“It was the right location and the right time,” he said.
Jake has become a popular fixture at St. Thomas. He’s been known to greet people walking by on Third Street as he is wandering about the back yard, and he gets to know the couples who come in for marriage preparation. Msgr. Hurley said he took Jake into the church one time when he was cleaning up after a wedding, and the bridal party was still there. Jake went over and kissed the bride.

At funerals, Jake can sense people’s grief.

“He’ll go to them,” Msgr. Hurley said. “They just immediately start petting him. It’s well-known how therapeutic dogs can be. I find it interesting when he sees someone crying or upset, he will move to them.”

For Father John Gayton, pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Claymont, his pets have been life-savers. He grew up in a large family that always had boxers, but as a military chaplain, he could not commit to a pet because of deployments. After he retired from the military, he decided to adopt a dog.

His first boxer, Zoey, was a fixture in the parish office until her death. Zoey, he said, “was a wonderful gal. She was a rescue, but she really rescued me.”

Father Gayton suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from his time serving in combat zones. It affected his life back in the Diocese of Wilmington.

“Part of that is isolation, some depression, anxiety, severe ultra-alertness, different things. When I got Zoey, she brought me right out of that. I was coming out of myself, I was laughing a lot more. I developed more energy and more focus, and I was able to accomplish a lot more in the parish,” he said.

Losing her, he continued, was extremely difficult, but he recently adopted Roxie, a boxer who is 5 months old. She is a bundle of energy who loves to run around the yard behind the rectory at Holy Rosary. He knew training her would be a lot of work.
“But she’s a sweetie pie,” he said.

“I try to keep her moving and occupied because otherwise, indoors, she is hyper as can be. She’s all over the place.”

Father Jim Hreha and Jack.

The dog is a bit stuck on herself. “Roxie believes that every human being was created for her pleasure. And she feels the same way about every other dog, that all they want to do is play with her. There’s not a person she doesn’t go to,” Father Gayton said.

One of the hurdles for priests who want to get a pet can be their living situation. Father Mark Kelleher said when he was at Holy Angels Parish in Newark years ago, the pastor, the late Father Richard Reissmann, did not want a canine in the rectory.

“Father Reissman was a big smoker. Finally I said to him, ‘If you can smoke cigarettes in the rectory, I can have a dog.’ So that was my thing. No one asked me if the smoke bothered me,” said Father Kelleher, now the pastor at Holy Family Parish in Newark.
He had two pugs at the time. He did a lot of research into breeds because he wanted a dog that would do well around the students at the parish school. His pugs were Sammy and Katie Scarlett O’Hara. Sammy has since passed away, but Scarlett, as she is known, is still going at 12 years old. He also has a cat named Gizmo who is 16.

The pets live with Father Kelleher and his mother. Scarlett has become quite attached to the priest’s mother. She and the cat get along well, “but once in a while they have a staredown, and they get into a little tussle. But not very often.”

He likes the companionship a pet provides and the responsibility of taking care of another living creature. The dogs and Gizmo have grounded him, he said.

About the only thing he doesn’t like about having a dog is taking her out, particularly when it’s raining. But that comes with the territory. Like other pet owners, Father Kelleher often takes a back seat to his four-legged friends.

“People ask about the pets before they ask about me. When I was Holy Angels, I would bring Sam into the school, and people didn’t care about me. They just wanted to play with Sam,” he said.

Companionship is a great benefit of having a dog for Father Hreha. He said in the past year he has eaten alone nearly every night, so it’s nice to have Jack around. The dog is not much of a conversationalist, however.

“I don’t talk to him because he’s stubborn and refuses to talk back,” Father Hreha said.

At Church of the Holy Child in Brandywine Hundred, the pastor, Father Michael Carrier, is a relatively new dog owner. His pet is Kate, a 6-year-old miniature schnauzer. His doctor recommended a dog to provide some exercise and as a form of stress relief. The experiment has been a success.

“She’s a wonderful little dog. She’s done her task that she’s supposed to do,” Father Carrier said.

Father Carrier has had associate pastors during his tenure at Holy Child, but none since Kate entered the picture. For the last 11 months, the staff has largely worked from home, so it’s been the two of them alone.

Kate is a mainstay at parish events and accompanies Father Carrier to the office most of the time. Parishioners who come in are usually greeted with a little bark. She’s also learned which staff members are going to pay more attention to her or sneak her a treat.

She likes to play with Father Carrier and “knows when you’re having a bad day. She senses that. She just comes over and nuzzles up next to you. You can just kind of feel it going out of you,” he said.

According to an article in Science magazine from 2015, this is no accident. The relationship between humans and dogs goes back thousands of years, and research shows “that when our canine pals stare into our eyes, they activate the same hormonal response that bonds us to human infants.”

Msgr. Hurley, who has a bed for Jake in his office in the diocesan chancery, said he read once that dogs are good for the soul. “And I believe that. I think there’s a special bond between humans and dogs. There is something special about that relationship.”