ONCE a year, on January 17, a strange crowd gathers on a street in Madrid’s fashionable Chueca district as Spain marks the feast day of San Anton.

For several hours, unusual pilgrims gather at the door of the Church of San Anton, for this is the feast day of the patron saint of animals and the day when priests offer a blessing to the city’s beloved pets.

Some trot along on leads, others are carried in the arms of their owners. Many are decked out in coats, jumpers or are wearing ribbons or neckerchiefs.

All are furred or feathered and are here for a dousing of holy water from the priests.

One man craddled a chihuahua named Greta who looked cosy in a fur trimmed puffa jacket. “We always come for this. It will keep her safe and healthy for another year,” he said after receiving the blessing.

“It’s the highlight of her year,” said an elderly woman clutching a regal looking feline by the name of Coco Chanel.Behind her, another woman gripped a small yellow budgerigar in her right hand while pulling along a reluctant Yorkshire terrier in her left.

She paused at the door to the church where a priest asked the animals names, sprinkled them with holy water and delivered a blessing.

My own dog Rufus, 10, wearing a bandana in ecclesiastical purple for the occasion, seemed unperturbed when the priest flicked some water his way, although appeared disappointed that the event hadn’t warranted a sacramental biscuit. 

Then Calle Hortaleza was closed to traffic to make way for larger four-legged animals which came, as they did for Noah’s Ark, two by two.

Canine units of the police force brought their working dogs, ceremonial guards rode in on their steeds.

Someone even turned up with a pair of sheep.

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A mass was held within the church where pets too were welcomed, while outside parishioners lined up to buy specially baked bread rolls for San Anton in packets of three, with one traditionally kept all year alongside a coin to bring health and prosperity.

The festival dates back to the 19th century and is celebrated in different ways across Spain including with a controversial ‘purification’ ceremony that sees horses ridden through flames.

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Father Angel (centre) petting the cat Coco Chanel on San Anton. Photo: F Govan

The animal blessings have grown hugely popular in recent years at Madrid’s San Anton church which is overseen by maverick priest, Father Angel Garcia Rodriguez who has become known for his innovative projects with the homeless and downtrodden in the capital.

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