According to Catholic teaching and legend, St. Francis of Assisi preached to the birds and once even persuaded a wolf to stop terrorizing a small village.

The 13th-century Italian friar's special connection to animals and his love of nature are why he's honored each Oct. 4. Churches hold ceremonies to bestow blessings on pets and other creatures.

One of the larger local celebrations of St. Francis' feast day will be held at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Rosemount. In addition to sprinkling animals with holy water at the event on Oct. 6, the church will feature a petting zoo, horse rides, a police canine unit and animal costume contest for children.

For many families, pets are "sort of like family," said the Rev. Paul Jarvis, St. Joseph's pastor. "We see people being taken care of with pets, the handicap folks with service pets. We see the aged parishioners ... that if it wasn't for their pet, they probably wouldn't receive love often in the day.

"We're recognizing that and blessing all of God's creatures. St. Francis took that very literally with regard to preaching to and blessing the animals."

The Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis also presents a well-known Blessing of the Animals ceremony, with creatures of all shapes, sizes and domesticity parading into the basilica; this year's celebration is Sept. 30.

An impoverished preacher who attracted followers in his day, St. Francis founded the Franciscan Order and is a patron saint of Italy. But he may be best known for his interactions with animals, Jarvis notes.

"There was this wolf rampaging a village," he said. "Francis was asked to help. Instead of going out ... to kill the wolf, he used gentility. He used care and that tamed the wolf. From that moment on, the wolf was, if you will, a member of the community.

"The lesson that gives us is instead of ... trying to address a situation ... aggressively, that perhaps a far more effective technique ... is do whatever we do with love."

Rose French • 612-673-4352