Losing an animal is a big deal’ Haywards Heath church appoints animal chaplain

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now
Animal lovers who have lost a pet or are worried about their health can find support from an unusual source… a church.

St Augustine’s in Scaynes Hill is one of few churches in the country to have its own animal chaplain.

Maria Brett comes from a farming background and went on to train as a veterinary nurse. She is now a vet practice manager at Downwood Vets in Horam and Ringmer.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The 54-year-old has been worshipping at St Augustine’s all her life, having grown up in the church. Animals are her great passion and it was a natural step for her to take the Authorised Lay Ministry animal chaplaincy course through the Diocese of Chichester, encouraged by her vicar Rev Beverly Miles.

Maria with her pet dog Ollie Maria with her pet dog Ollie
Maria with her pet dog Ollie

Maria said: “With my work in the vet practice and in particular euthanasia, I witnessed the impact of bereavement on people. I’ve been able to help people understand the symptoms and diagnoses. If they have to face the inevitable decision of euthanasia then I would be able to explain what to expect and help them prepare for it.

“Having lost a much-loved pet, they would say, ‘Oh I’m sorry I know I am being stupid. It is just an animal’. I want to reassure them they are not and what they are feeling is completely normal. Where there is love, there will be grief, there will be sadness. There is a lot of guilt too.

“When I started the chaplaincy elective, delivered by Rev Stephen Gurr, I soon realised I was able to bring my love for animals together with my experience as a vet nurse and manager and with Stephen’s gentle guidance the animal chaplaincy came out of it.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Maria supports church members and people in the community who have lost a pet or who may be living on their own and worried about a pet’s health.


She said: “It gives a message that the church recognises losing an animal is a big deal. People can now remember their pets by writing the pet’s name on a pebble and placing it at the foot of a statue of St Francis in the church.”

St Francis of Assisi cared for the poor and sick but he also preached sermons on animals. He wanted all creatures on Earth, including humans, to be treated as equals under God. Some of his sermons included stories about birds, fish and rabbits.

Having someone to talk to who understands what it is like when a much-loved pet dies was a privilege for Maggie Sawney, a member of St Augustine’s. She said: “Owning a pet inevitably brings with it the day when they pass away. It’s a tough time but we are fortunate enough to have an animal chaplain.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“When my cat Molly had to be put to sleep fairly unexpectedly Maria was right there to support me through this tough time. It’s a real privilege to know there is someone there who will understand animal bereavement.

Lola the Schnoodle Lola the Schnoodle
Lola the Schnoodle

“The church really is animal friendly. On Sundays, it is not unusual to have three dogs joining in with our service.”

After Covid Joanna Burdett, who lived locally, wanted to go back to church but was unable to because her pet dog, acquired during lockdown, was too nervous.

She said: “I got my lovely Schnoodle Lola during lockdown and she was a total delight. Unfortunately, when I tried to leave her after we came out of Covid she was very distressed. I really wanted to get back to church but was unable to go back to my old church.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“Friends recommended St Augustine’s and said I could take Lola with me. Well, ten months later we have not looked back. We have received the warmest welcome and Lola loves going. I only need to say ‘church’ and she is wagging her tail and by the back door ready to go.

“If it was not for St Augustine’s I would be stuck at home and not be able to receive and give the love, friendship and support that is part of being in a church family. God is good and answers prayers.”

Maria said: “I don't think an animal chaplain is right for every church but what I do hope is that anybody in any church suffering a pet bereavement will be treated with the same love, care and hopefully understanding as anyone else going through grief and loss.”

St Augustine’s is registered with the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals (ASWA) and was recently named Animal Friendly Church of the Year.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Most churches in the Diocese are animal-friendly and a growing number of churches hold an animal blessing every year.

Maria said: “The animal-friendly church is part of my chaplaincy, by bringing a focus to our creation through animals so is an important part of my chaplaincy and also part of our eco church as well."

Related topics: