Saint Francis statue at the entrance of a Mexican church.
Fri, 11/26/2021 - 7:21pm

Dog Spelled Backward

The Pope, Saint Francis and the patron saint of dogs

The only day of the year that the dog show world intersects with Catholic traditions is October 4, the feast day of St. Francis, when cathedrals, churches and chapels open their doors for a blessing of the animals. Dogs are on their best behavior in the hushed sanctuaries as priests read out the centuries-old blessing and sprinkle holy water on their heads.

In paintings, St. Francis is depicted with a sparrow on his hand. Sometimes a fawn stands by his side. The legend of St. Francis includes anecdotes of how he walked through woods and fields preaching to the birds. His mythos has become that of a kind of “animal whisperer” who truly communicated with creatures.

A close friend has made a lifelong study of the history of the church, so I asked him, “Was it a love of animals that led the new pope to adopt the name Francis?”

“There’s no evidence of that,” he said. “It’s more likely he was drawn to St. Francis because of his radical repudiation of materialism, property, worldly success, and the values that motivate most people in most cultures to do what they do.”

To people not involved with pets, he explained, St. Francis is an icon of the rejection of worldly values like greed, lust, covetousness, rapacity, mercenariness, money-grubbing, insatiability, gluttony, intemperance and self-indulgence.


 His Holiness Pope Francis I greets prayers gathered before St Peter` Basilica in Vatican City in 2013.


Popes pick a name to identify how they want their tenure in the papal office to be characterized. By taking the name Francis, the pope rejected the materialism and commercialism of the modern world and honors a simple life without ornamentation or excess. As an example, he declined to live in the grand palace reserved for the papacy, choosing instead simpler apartments within the Vatican.

The historian said that the new pope in his obiter dicta supported ideas of environmentalism, but his attitude toward animals is not known.


Parishioners accompanied by their pets attend a mass on St. Francis of Assisi Day, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 2018. 


The Catholic Church has a saint for every profession and hobby, but few people know there is a patron saint of dogs. He is Saint Roch, a Frenchman who spent much of his life in Italy, where he is known as Saint Rocco. (“Roch” is pronounced “roque” as in Roquefort cheese, which comes from the departement where the Roch family lived.)

Roch was born in 1295, the son of the wealthy governor of Montpelier. Roch lived in upper-class comfort. When Pope Urban V made a journey there with the goal of keeping the region turned toward Rome as the spiritual center of the Catholic religion, Roch had access to all the masses said by the pope. He was present at state dinners.

The holy man had a powerful effect on young Roch. When he was twenty, Roch’s parents died, leaving him with riches and the governorship. But the image of Pope Urban had a powerful hold on him. He decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome.

Roch passed his worldly possessions on to his uncle, who by French accounts was floored that Roch would give up such a comfortable life. According to legend, God showed his approval by giving Roch the gift of healing. 

St. Roch altar painting in St. Vitus church in Ladvenjak, Croatia.


It was time of the Great Plague, a horrible disease that was decimating the people of Italy.  Roch stopped one night at the Italian town of Aquapendente, where he saw people sick and dying all around him. He began ministering to them. His prayers seemed to have a special healing power. Roch realized that if he sought acclaim for this gift, he would once again be far from his goal of a pious life. So he played down his healing power, and claimed to be an ordinary ministrant. He stopped in Mantua, Modena, Parma, and other cities, ministering to the sick, always with good results.

At the small Italian village of Piacerna, Roch once again cured many. But this time, Roch himself fell ill. When he lifted up his robes, he saw that an open sore had invaded his leg just above the knee, a sign of the plague.

Roch felt that his time had finally come. He disappeared to a quiet spot in the woods to live out his days. A small dog followed him. The dog left when he fell asleep at night, but appeared the next morning, carrying a loaf of bread. Roch tried to shoo him away, but the dog wouldn’t go. Finally it occurred to Roch that the dog was on a mission of his own. Roch ate the bread, gaining strength. When he fell asleep, the dog was still there, warming him with his furry body, and gently licking the plague sore.

With this dog as his source of sustenance, Roch regained his strength. The dog’s wealthy owner took Roch in.

After many years in Italy, Roch decided to return to his ancestral home in France. Unfortunately, his uncle was not pleased. Rather than being met with welcome, Roch was imprisoned.

This time, there was no small dog to help him. He spent five years in prison, and died there in 1327. When his body was prepared for burial, guards who had worked for his family were astonished to see Roch’s unmistakable birthmark, a red cross, on his chest. He was given the grand funeral that he deserved. People began to pray to him, and sculpt statues in his likeness, always with a dog by his side.

Later, another infestation of the plague spread through Europe. Devout Catholics believed that it was their prayers to Saint Roch that brought it to an end. St. Roch was canonized in 1427, one hundred years after his death.

In the center of Paris, close to the Champs-Élysées, stands the lovely Church of St. Roch. It is one of the city’s biggest. A statue outside the door shows a deferential holy man in monk-like robes, carrying a staff. Pressed against his side, his face turned adoringly upward, is a shepherd-type dog. The saint’s hand rests tenderly on the dog’s head.

The day I visited, I sought out the sacristan with a question that had been bothering me: What breed of dog saved St. Roch? In Italian paintings, the breed is shown as a Whippet or Italian Greyhound.

The priest listened politely to my question, Était-ce un berger ou un levrier?

“Was he a shepherd or a sighthound?”

He gave an impatient shrug and told me to go look at the paintings. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. He’s right, of course, but as a Whippet breeder, I’m pleased that the medal I wear around my neck shows a Whippet leaning against St. Roch.


St. Roch Cemetery, Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana.


Throughout the southern French region of Languedoc, nearly every chapel along the pilgrimage route Santiago de Compostela contains a statue of St. Roch. The loyal dog is always by his side.

The cult of St. Roch came to the U.S. in the mid 1800s with a German priest, Father Peter Leonard Thevis, who settled in Louisiana. In 1868, New Orleans was hit with an epidemic of yellow fever. Father Thevis urged his parishioners to pray to St. Roch. When not a single parishioner died, Father Thevis built a Gothic-style chapel and cemetery that was completed in 1876. On the altar is a statue of St. Roch and his faithful dog.

There is another saint well associated with dogs, St. Bernard of Menthon, the 11th-Century monk whose name was given to the breed of giant dogs bred by his followers. St. Bernards still live at the Great St. Bernard Hospice in the Western Alps, but modern rescuers tend to use helicopters to pluck lost travelers from the snow instead of St. Bernards with their flasks of brandy.



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