COLUMBIA — This weekend, a variety of animals will file into the outdoor worship center at Broadway Christian Church to be blessed.

The church will be hosting its fourth annual Blessing of the Beasts at 3 p.m. Sunday. This event invites all pet owners in Columbia to bring their animals out to receive a blessing in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. He celebrated all living creatures and is known for the kindness and compassion he showed toward them.

Church board member Dana Fritz said that in the past, Columbia residents have brought a variety of creatures to the Blessing of the Beasts, including hermit crabs and sheep.

"One little boy brought a bearded dragon last year," Fritz said. "He wore it on his shirt and zipped up his hoodie as it got colder."

The blessing ceremony will feature excerpts of St. Francis' Canticle of the Sun and focus on the importance of animal companions and the way that they have blessed humans.

"The ministers will circulate around and wish the animals a fruitful and happy life," said Tim Carson, senior minister of Broadway Christian Church.

Each service features an educational portion, including speakers from the Raptor Rehabilitation Project and Happy Tails Animal Sanctuary. This year's speaker is Sybil Amelon, a bat researcher and rescuer who works for the USDA.

"Sometimes the creatures that are least admired by humans are the most important in the ecosystem," Carson said.

For the first time since the event started, this Sunday's service will give those with deceased pets the opportunity to remember them in a special way. Part of the ceremony will include a memorial dedicated to animals who have died.

"We felt that when people lose a pet, they feel as if they have lost a friend or a part of their family," said Michelle Marshall, veterinarian at Horton Animal Hospital Northeast. "We thought it would be nice for people to memorialize them with people who understand."

The event is free and anyone in Columbia is welcome to attend. Guests can bring any animal that can be restrained or held by a leash or placed in a carrier.

"The event serves to constantly make us aware that humankind is not the only species in the pond," Carson said. "The world is bigger than us."

 Supervising editor is Hunter Woodall.

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