BRADENTON -- Vanessa Arias knows she isn't the only one looking out for her pet cockatiel, Pepe.
Arias, a fifth-grader at St. Joseph Catholic School in Bradenton, had Pepe at school Friday afternoon to receive a blessing in honor of the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. The school holds an annual Blessing of the Animals to commemorate the day, which falls on Saturday.
With hundreds of pets gathered in a courtyard behind the St. Joseph parish office, few of the school's 225 students were giving serious thought to the story of a 13th century friar who loved animals. Critters in the here and now required love, attention and blessings from God.
Arias insisted on that point.
"She's very young and we want her to get blessed," Arias said of Pepe. "She's part of our family."
Led by Bob Nimon, a deacon at St. Joseph Catholic Church, the half-hour event included prayers for dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, fish, turtles, lizards and snails that showed up with parents during the last period of the day. Nimon asked in a prayer shared with more than 100 people that God watch out for the health and happiness of "all things that have breath." He made a particular point to pray for animals suffering illness or mistreatment.
After the prayer, Nimon walked through the courtyard sprinkling pets and their owners with holy water to seal the blessing.
Principal Deborah Suddarth said the event is important to students at the school from prekindergarten to eighth grade.
"It's a chance to share in the gifts of creation," she said.
Most pets present were dogs. There was also a smattering of less common pets, many of which caused a stir. Eighth-grader Michael Barbier brought his 3-month-old bearded dragon lizard, which hung on the front of Barbier's T-shirt, staying as close to his owner as possible.
Barbier's mother said her son quickly grew to love his pet and is doing all he can to make its life pleasant. This was the first time the lizard has been blessed.
"Michael felt his bearded dragon should be blessed to live a long life," Barbier said.
For some other pets, blessings are old hat. Dienne Wenzel brought her family's chinchilla cat to the blessing for her daughter, preschooler Tenley. The cat has also been blessed in church.
"I always like to get our pets blessed," Wenzel said.
Other Catholic and Episcopal churches in Manatee County will hold animal blessings throughout the weekend.