During his lifetime, Saint Francis of Assisi was famously devoted to animals. Paintings and statues depict the saint frolicking with birds, dogs and other beasts.
The lore of San Francisco’s namesake seemed an ideal fit for a city where dogs outnumber kids. Inside the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi in San Francisco’s North Beach, tributes to the saint’s life abound, especially in its annual blessing of the animals.
On a recent weekend, the shrine’s rector Father Gregory Coiro blessed some 500 pets during the two-day stretch.
“Mostly dogs,” said Coiro, wearing a brown robe and tangled beard. “But there were a few cats and a few angora rabbits.”
The Shrine has long opened its doors to living pets in the spirit of Saint Francis. But now, it’s also opening them to the dead. In a newly discovered grotto beneath the shrine’s front steps, Coiro has envisioned the building of a columbarium to house the ashes of the dearly departed of the pet world.
“The people who bring their pets here can be Catholic or they can be non-Catholic,” said Coiro. “Cause afterall, the animals have no religion.”
Currently the concrete pillared cave looks like the ruins of a Roman temple.
Though work on the site has not yet begun, the Shrine recently released a brochure with depictions of glass-walled partitions where pets’ ashes will be interned.
Visitors will be greeted by a large portrait of Saint Francis himself, and a video monitor will play video loops of pets enshrined in the space. In another corner, a large memorial will pay tribute to police and rescue dogs, like those who searched for survivors and bodies amid the rubble of the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11.
“As somebody walks through and visits the columbarium it’ll be like an on-going history of people involved with the shrine; animals that have been involved in families lives,” said Bill McLaughlin, a church volunteer who’s helping organize the construction.
Some of the shrine’s neighbors have complained they weren’t notified in advance of plans to store ashes amid hundreds of businesses. Fabio Giotta, one of the owners of nearby Caffe Trieste said he was surprised by plans to build a “pet cemetery in a national shrine.” Coiro said the shrine hasn’t yet applied for permits from the city.
Both the San Francisco Health and Planning Departments referred calls on the matter to each other. A Health Department Spokeswoman said the department was only interested in dead animals when people ate them.
Coiro admitted the columbarium would also help generate money for the upkeep of the shrine.
He said the church hadn’t determined the fees for housing pet cremains, although the brochure was seeking donations to the project in the $1000 to $40,000 range.
Coiro said he was moved by his childless sister who considered her dogs family, and was distraught when they died.
“I understand for many, many people, their animals are very dear to them,” said Coiro.