Updated at 8:15 p.m. Jan. 16, 2018
They mostly brought dogs, but people also came with cats and a chinchilla the size of a small rabbit. One arrived with a tarantula named Stella.
But at Sunday’s annual Blessing of the Animals in Old Town State Historic Park, Ellen Ericksen asked the Rev. Michael Sinor to bless her tray of uncooked bacon and bones.
“The priest … was pretty nice,” said Ericksen, a longtime animal-rights activist. “He said I’ll bless you, but I won’t bless the animal. And I said: Why not? You just gave a whole speech about animals are sentient beings.”
She said Sinor, of nearby Church of the Immaculate Conception, said her offering wasn’t sentient because it was food.
“He started with the Bible, [and] that Jesus ate meat,” Eriksen said in a phone interview Sunday night. “And I said: ‘Well, Jesus isn’t here, and it’s the year 2018 and we all know how bad it is to eat animals. It’s not healthy.’ And he would not bless the animal, which I thought was kind of weird.”
Repeating a protest of three years ago, Ericksen and six others demonstrated at the event sponsored by Fiesta de Reyes, the major Old Town concessionaire. Several dozen people came for animal blessings.
Ericksen — accompanied by a friend with an uncooked broiler chicken and others with PETA-branded signs — was insistent on getting a blessing for the bones and bacon in an aluminum baking tray.
The blessings were scheduled to go from 1 to 2:30 p.m. but ended about an hour early.
Michael Simms, a spokesman for Fiesta de Reyes, said Sinor left because he had finished blessing the animals present “and moved on with his day.”
On Tuesday, Sinor said he left early because of a mix-up, not because of demonstrators.
“I was told that the blessing of the animals began at 1 p.m.,” he said via email. “No one mentioned to me that it would go on for an hour or more.”
In parish settings, he said, he’s always done blessings of animals on the Saturday closest to the feast of St. Francis of Assisi on Oct. 4.
“The ceremony usually begins at a set time and ends when the animals are blessed and after some brief mingling,” Sinor said. “It was unfortunate the protesters used this venue. These were all people who loved their pets, many of which were ‘rescues’ from animal shelters.”
Simms acknowledged that people brought animals after Sinor had left, and Simms said he “explained to people that the priest had to go for whatever reason … and I apologized.”
As many as 5,000 people have attended the blessing in previous years, Simms said. Around the world, the blessing of the animals is celebrated Jan. 17 on St. Anthony’s Feast Day.
In San Diego, the event has historical importance because such blessings were done many years ago, Simms said.
“But at that time it was about domestic animals, about horses and cows that people used to make a living,” he said.
Simms said he didn’t hear complaints about the priest’s leaving earlier than scheduled.
But on Facebook, Mark O’Brien on Facebook said with an emoji of irritation: “It would have been better if there hadn’t been animal-rights protesters interrupting and bothering participants!”
Later, O’Brien told Times of San Diego: “Honestly, I think the priest handled it very well, considering. Also, I agree with other people who were there. One lady mentioned that (PETA people) love confrontation. They live for it.
“Also, she said (and I agree with her) that they are cowards in that they pick ‘soft targets’ like a peaceful religious ceremony.”
Protest organizer Ericksen, a Mission Valley area resident, defended her activity, noting a poster she carried with a small puppy and a baby pig that said: “Why love one and eat the other?”
In the 2015 protest, she sought (and failed to get) a blessing for pork chops wrapped in a towel.
Ericksen stresses that her protest wasn’t by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — although she uses PETA materials.
“PETA has nothing to do with my SeaWorld protests,“ she added, noting her hundreds of demonstrations there including earlier Sunday, on the first anniversary of killer whale Tilikum’s death. “I organize all of those.“
Ericksen said she changes minds at the annual blessing.
“I do feel that the event was empowering today,” she said. “And even though some people were angry, they don’t want to see and hear the truth. And maybe they do see and hear it and they have a tinge of guilt.”
Before the animal blessing, Sinor said of the event, “We have a long history of blessing animals. Animals have been very important.”
“Not only are they wonderful companions for a lot of people, but they provide a lot of needs for us. So this is a way to celebrate God’s creatures and to give thanks to God and to bless those pets and the people who take care of them,” he said.
People who brought their pets to be blessed said they believed in the significance of the event.
Margaret Cohn of Rancho Bernando, a regular participant who brought her Wheaten terrier, said, “We bring little Shine here to be blessed by the priest. We believe that they (animals) are part of the family. They can’t go to the church or synagogue with us, but they can come here and be part of the service and get blessed.”
Andre Leu brought her surfing and therapy dog.
“I bring Kalani to get all of the blessings that we can get and it’s a good way to start out the new year,” he said. “We get the blessings and then turn around and share it.”
Dogs and cats aren’t the only animals brought for blessing.
In others years, the largest animal was a white horse that played Shadowfax in the movie “The Lord of the Rings.” The smallest have been tiny birds, said Eric Minella, manager of historic interpretation at Fiesta de Reyes.
A snake and some rats once came for a blessing, he said.
On Sunday, Sharon Everett of North Park brought her 17-year-old Chilean Rose tarantula to be blessed, but the priest had left by then.
Everett, a retired teacher from Jefferson Elementary School, said Stella used to be an arachnid of interest in her classroom.
“I brought her because I thought the blessing would keep her living for a long time,” she said.
Minella said of the participants, “I think we live in a time when people are wonderfully crazy about their pets. I don’t know, but I am guessing that people who aren’t even religious just think: Well, why not have my pet blessed?”
A former HIV/AIDS awareness activist in Palm Springs who moved to San Diego 15 years ago, Ericksen said her intent was to “stand in line and have the father bless the animal. I truly wanted those animals blessed. And he wouldn’t do it. And I don’t know why he wouldn’t do it.”
Simms, the spokesman for Fiesta de Reyes (which operates 19 shops, three restaurants and a small hotel), had a theory.
“I imagine her motivation was to have people like you print it in your publication,” he said. “Whatever message they were trying to get across, this was not their audience. That’s not what this event was about.”