CHAMBERLAIN — As birds gathered above the Wisdom Circle on the campus of St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain on Oct. 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment, students and staff did the same below on the dewy morning grass.
At the center of the circle stood Chaplin Fr. Greg Schill, SCJ, who led the group in prayer, including blessing some of the animals who grace St. Joseph’s homes and campus every day. It was a way to recognize, “All animals should be treated with kindness and the dignity they deserve.”
Among staff and students were three horses from the school’s Equine Therapy program and two dogs from the Houseparents and Pets in (HAPI) Homes program. First blessed were the horses. The Lakota, Dakota and Nakota tribes represented at St. Joseph’s regard animals at a deep level. In particular, they revere the šúŋkawakȟán — horse — for its grace, bravery and ability to assist in healing from trauma, anxiety, and mental and emotional distress.
St. Joseph’s launched its Equine Therapy program in 2018. Ever since, the horses have been taking on any trauma, grief or pain for students and helping them release it. Fr. Greg patted drops of Holy Water on their foreheads to shower the horses with gratitude before turning his attention to the dogs.
The šúŋka — dog — has long played an essential role in Native American society and culture. Before the arrival of the horses to the Great Plains, Native Americans relied heavily on dogs for a variety of tasks. Although the relationship has morphed over time, the connection remains strong, and Fr. Greg splashed Holy Water on the dogs to bless them.
Tia Fontenot, houseparent at St. Joseph’s, brought her dog, Andy, to the blessing. She said blessing Andy — the small but spunky Yorkshire Terrier — and the other animals was perfect to show how much they are considered family at St. Joseph’s.
“Animals play such an integral role on campus. Whether in the homes, at the school or in counseling sessions, they are a part — big or small — in everything we do and provide support to all of our students,” said Fontenot.
She recalled when Andy sat outside a girl’s room on campus, even though he’s usually right under Fontenot’s feet.
“When he does this, we know it’s because he’s picking up on something going on inside the person on the other side of the door. In those circumstances, almost every time, it’s because a girl needs extra support from feeling homesickness, nerves or something else. He gives to the students by helping them cope,” Fontenot said.
Whether the animal is a part of HAPI Homes or the Equine Therapy program at St. Joseph’s, they all do one thing the same without fail: they continually give back. Providing the animals with a blessing on the Feast of Saint Francis was a special way to give back to them in return.