September 16, 2022

Priests and their dogs: A bond of joy that brings extra smiles to parish members, too

Father Adam Ahern calls Bella, his 2-year-old German Shepherd, “a great blessing in my priesthood and a gift from God.” (Submitted photo)

Father Adam Ahern calls Bella, his 2-year-old German Shepherd, “a great blessing in my priesthood and a gift from God.” (Submitted photo)

First of two parts (Read part two here)

By John Shaughnessy

With his tail wagging and his head bopping back and forth in the rhythmic joy of being a dog, Raphael quickly gets smiles and pats of affection from the people who have come to the food pantry at St. Michael Parish in the southern Indiana community of Bradford.

In the 10 months since he was rescued by Father Aaron Pfaff, the dog who is named after one of the archangels has made such a connection with the people who come in need of extra food that they bring him snacks and treats.

That connection has also fed a different kind of need for Raphael, who had a damaged tail and a broken tooth—and who had lived in a cage in a basement—before Father Pfaff found him outside a Cincinnati animal shelter and gave him a home in more ways than one in the parish. Ever since, the huge English Mastiff breed dog has been making the most of his second chance.

“He’s on a mission to build trust in people,” Father Pfaff says. “He seems to build a lot of relationships with children, guests of the food pantry and adults. People see a big, gentle spirit. In his own way, he’s teaching us kindness and generosity. He’s a real welcoming presence.”

That description fits a number of dogs who have found homes with priests across the archdiocese, welcoming parishioners, connecting with school children and sometimes even helping to deepen people’s faith.

‘I wouldn’t give her up for the world’

When he decided to get a dog, Father Adam Ahern had just returned to the archdiocese after serving in 2019-20 as a chaplain in the Indiana Army National Guard—his unit having been deployed to a camp in Kuwait where he had traveled across the Middle East to minister to U.S. soldiers facing intense, life-threatening situations throughout the region.

“We had dogs when I was growing up,” Father Ahern says. “Coming back from Kuwait, I knew I’d be on my own in the rectory, and I wanted to see what it would be like to have a dog as an adult.”

The connection he has with Bella, a 2-year-old German Shepherd, has been even better than he hoped.

“I wouldn’t give her up for the world at this point,” he says.

With a laugh, Father Ahern shares a few stories of how children and adults react when they see the priest and the dog together, often focusing more on Bella.

In the nearly two years he led St. Michael Parish in Charlestown in the New Albany Deanery, Father Ahern made frequent visits with Bella to the parish’s early childhood development center where the 3- and 4-year-old children would joyfully chase after the dog, and she would respond playfully. After such visits, the children would sometimes draw pictures of those experiences.

“When they drew pictures of Father Adam, they would draw pictures of Bella, too,” Father Ahern says. “Some would just draw pictures of Bella.

“People say, ‘Hi, Bella!’ before they say hi to me. Or the first thing they say when they see me is, ‘Hi, Father Adam, how’s Bella?’ ”

In July, when Father Ahern became pastor of the Jeffersonville parishes of St. Augustine and Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, there was a huge sign welcoming both him and Bella.

“I’m introducing myself to the parishes right now. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me, ‘I know you’re a good person because you’re a dog person.’ ”

He laughs again as he shares that reaction, but he turns serious when he talks about Bella, who he gave a home when she was 8 weeks old and has now grown into “a 65-pound terror of rabbits and squirrels” whose main pleasure in life is playing ball with Father Ahern.

“There are times when being a priest is difficult, when the weight of the world is on your shoulders,” he says. “When you come home from a difficult funeral or a long day at the office, the presence of another creature in the rectory makes a difference—the joy she has in seeing you come back.

“The parish is dependent on you as a priest. And I’m looking at a creature that is dependent on me. It helps motivate me to do the things I need to do—to take her to the state park for a walk, to throw the ball for her. I can do that.

“When I was at St. Michael, there was a chapel in the rectory. When I couldn’t find Bella, nine times out of 10 she was in the chapel. It was always a reminder that I need to go in there and spend more time there myself.”

There’s a definite tone of love in his voice when Father Ahern says about his connection with Bella, “It’s been a great blessing in my priesthood and a gift from God.”

The unconditional love of dogs

When 86-year-old Father Thomas Stepanski settles down to take a nap each day, he can always count on his two boxers named Rocky and Riley to join him for that hour in bed.

“They’re real companions,” he says, his voice touched with a combination of joy and love. “And they get along really well. They’re like brother and sister.”

Now in his 60th year as a priest, Father Stepanksi never had dogs in his life until 11 years ago when his friend and caretaker, Rich DeLong, suggested the idea to him.

Father Stepanski and DeLong had been friends who took walks together after the priest retired as the pastor of Mary, Queen of Peace Parish in Danville, but their bond became stronger after Father Stepanski had a heart attack and needed a quintuple-bypass surgery, according to DeLong. And with Father Stepanski not having family nearby, DeLong became a caretaker for his friend. DeLong also thought having dogs would enhance his friend’s life.

“The dogs give him joy,” DeLong says. “They give him unconditional love. That’s a gift.”

The priest’s first two dogs, Tara and Toric, meant so much to him that there is a memorial in his house to them, including their pictures and their collars.

Rocky and Riley, both rescue dogs, soon came into the life of Father Stepanski, who still attends Mass at Mary, Queen of Peace and continues to live in Danville, saying, “It’s a nice small town.”

“I can’t get around too much,” Father Stepanski says. “The spirit is good, but the body isn’t. That’s why it’s nice to have the dogs. When Rich has to go away, it’s nice to have companions who look after me.

“Dogs are a blessing. I would always encourage people to have them.”

Father Pfaff adds to that thought when he talks about Raphael and the other dogs he has rescued through the years.

“Dogs teach us a lot about faith, about relationships, about God,” Father Pfaff says. “Raphael is consistent in wanting to give and receive love, no matter what’s happening in the world and in our lives.

“He has a way of keeping me in the moment and other-focused. It’s similar to the way God calls us to be grounded, focused and present—to be aware of others. The more I live with dogs, the more I realize how far I have to come as a human.” †

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