WESTBROOK, Maine — Usually, on Oct. 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, the Rev. Louis Phillips blesses his parishioners’ pets outside the church.

But not this year.

Instead of blessing dogs, cats, bunnies and birds with loving homes and caring owners, Phillips donned his vestments and bestowed his sacred words upon the sick and homeless critters receiving care at his local animal shelter.

He said it only made sense.

“This year, I thought I’d do something different,” Phillips said while standing in the lobby at the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland in Westbrook on Tuesday. “Our own pets are already blessed.”

A cat peers out from its enclosure as Rev. Louis Phillips prepares to bless the creature at the Animal Refuge League at Greater Portland in Westbrook on Tuesday, the feast day for St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The organization is currently caring for more than 200 animals between its shelter and foster homes. Up to 4,000 animals a year come under the Animal Refuge League’s care.

Phillips came with more than kind words, too.

In tow behind him were several members of his flock bearing large bags of dry dog food and a case of canned cat food. Another parishioner brought a plastic bag filled with handmade cat toys.

According to Catholic tradition, St. Francis was born in Assisi, Italy, around 1181 and gave up a life of luxury to serve the church in poverty. Francis was also said to be able to speak with birds and once tamed a ravenous wolf.

Starting with the kitten room, Phillips strode between the cages in the gleaming, modern facility, reading from a book of blessings, uttering soft words of encouragement to animals waiting for forever homes.

Clockwise from left: Rev. Louis Phillips blesses a room full of senior cats the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland in Westbrook on Tuesday; Rev. Louis Phillips holds a book of blessings before bestowing them upon dogs, cats, rabbits and parakeets; A kitten named Celestina watches a priest bless her through the front glass of her enclosure on Tuesday, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“Enjoy your pellets,” he said to one rabbit, who did not reply.

Phillips said pets can be an important part of someone’s spiritual life because their unconditional love resembles that of God.

After blessing the dogs, the priest was shown into a restricted area where the sickest animals are housed.

“I think this is beautiful,” said Terry Reil, a member of Phillips’ church. “I came in here once to get a dog and walked out with a wonderful cat — even though she climbs my lampshades sometimes. Her name is Missy.”

Jeana Roth, director of community engagement at the Animal Refuge League, said she couldn’t remember a priest ever coming to the shelter to bless animals before Tuesday.

Rev. Louis Phillips, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Parish speaks a soft blessing over a dog at the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland in Westbrook on Tuesday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“It’s a really nice gesture,” Roth said.

But it wasn’t Phillips’ first time at the Animal Refuge League.

“I have a cat I adopted from here a couple years ago,” he said. “His name is Dominic.”

Until recently, Phillips also had a dog, adopted from a shelter while serving a parish in New Jersey. The Maltese and Chihuahua mix was named Padre.

“He passed away last week,” Phillips said. “This has been a tough time for me, but this is a healing experience.”

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.