It’s just after 5 p.m. and the parishioners are filing out of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Parish in Windham, Maine, following the Saturday Vigil Mass. As they go through the church doors, Fr. Lou Phillips is waiting to greet them. Parishioners are smiling broadly and the sounds of laughter echo across the church parking lot. Of course, they are happy to greet their pastor, but there is reason for more joy — Fr. Phillips is never without his best friend, Padre, who also does some post-Mass handshaking of his own. After all, both wear a collar.
“Padre’s favorite activity is to greet people before and after Masses, usually at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Windham because that’s where he lives in the rectory with me. He also enjoys joining the after-daily Mass group at Our Lady’s during the week for coffee and muffins,” said Fr. Phillips, Padre’s owner and the pastor of the Sebago Lakes Region Parishes in the Diocese of Portland (Maine).
“In many cases, Padre introduces me to people. It’s not unusual for people to greet Padre first, and maybe say hello to me afterwards — which is OK. Padre is especially adept in greeting children. He thinks they are his litter mates.”
Padre travels along with Fr. Phillips as he celebrates Masses, visits the sick, and performs other priestly duties. Sometimes the dog waits in the car, sometimes he goes along with Father. He typically spends a lot of time in the parish offices for the Sebago Lakes Region, which in addition to Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Windham includes St. Anne’s in Gorham, and St. Anthony’s in Westbrook.
All parishes are dog-friendly and his canine companions Bella, Charlie, Chris, and Philip are often at the parishes waiting for his arrival. However, Chloe, a Japanese chin, is his “girlfriend,” and her owner is Carol Kennie, an active parishioner and volunteer for the church.
“Padre is a real icebreaker. People who come out of the church are immediately drawn to him, especially the children,” Kennie said. “He is like a magnet.”
Melissa Dlugos was at a Saturday night Mass with her two children, Sophie, 2, and Matthew, 7.
“We love seeing Padre. It is great to see all of God’s creatures,” Dlugos said. “Padre brings out a very sweet and reachable side of Fr. Lou.”
Life wasn’t always so easy or safe for Padre. He was rescued from an animal hoarding situation in Louisiana. Fr. Phillips adopted him through a local organization called Puppy Love, Inc., a nonprofit whose primary mission is to rescue dogs from the South. Many of the dogs rescued by the organization became orphaned as the result of natural or man-made disasters. Dogs are also rescued from high-kill shelters.
The dogs from the South are rescued and placed in appropriate homes and shelters in Maine. All animals are provided with veterinarian care, foster homes, and permanent, loving homes. Puppy Love transports dogs from the South (mainly western Louisiana) about once a month, making the three-day trip in a climate-controlled vehicle for the dogs.
Padre, thankfully, was saved from being euthanized. He was originally named “Peanut” but Father changed his name as soon as he got him. Some dog experts claim that changing an adopted dog’s name helps the bonding process. Padre is also skilled in the art of pastoral care, caring for parishioners as well as his pastor.
“Padre is very good at communicating with me. He lets me know when I’m too keyed up or anxious. He lets me know when it is time to go to bed and when it’s time to take a break from work and go for a walk with him of course,” Fr. Phillips said. “Dogs make us exercise and take care of health probably because they are concerned that we stay in shape so that we’ll be able to take care of them.”
Fr. Phillips has taken care of many dogs throughout his life. He has fostered puppies that would later become guide dogs for the blind.
“Padre cheers a lot of people up when they see him,” said Jackie Duran, a Eucharistic minister for the Sebago Lake Region Parishes. “He is simply adorable.”
Fr. Phillips’ most memorable visit with Padre occurred when he went to a nursing home in Casco, Maine, to administer Anointing of the Sick to a patient who was in danger of death. It was a hot day, so Father took Padre with him. As they were leaving, an elderly woman sitting in a wheelchair lit up when she saw the pup. Fr. Phillips placed Padre in her lap. She smiled and petted him for several minutes and not one word was said. It was the unspoken language of love, between a dog and a human.
“Dogs, like God, give us unconditional love. Unlike God, dogs are absolutely dependent on us. So, dogs need a lot of time, attention, and care,” Fr. Phillips said. “Dogs are expensive and rack up big veterinary bills, grooming bills, and food bills. The good news is that dogs don’t go to college, so that’s one expense you don’t have to worry about.”
However, while dogs don’t go to college, perhaps we will see them again one day. Padre, who has answered a higher calling, will be at the head of the pack.
For more information about Puppy Love Inc., visit PuppyLoveMe.org.