Controversial plans for a pet columbarium — an area in a church basement where the faithful could lay to rest ashes of dearly departed dogs, cats and other pets — at the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi on Vallejo Street have been abandoned.
Instead, the cryptlike space underneath the front stairs of the venerable church, one of the oldest in The City, will hold services for people as well as pets, according to Harold Snider, the Capuchin friar who serves as the shrine’s rector.
The large basement space, of which the planned columbarium was a part, has already hosted pet adoption events organized by the SPCA.
Once church renovations are completed, the basement will be used for homeless outreach, meetings and other events that provide a range of support for “all of God’s creatures, two-legged as well as four-legged,” Snider said in an interview Wednesday.
Ending the columbarium dream removes an unwelcome bone of contention at the church, which has seen more than its share of scandal in recent months. Snider arrived at the church last summer, after the columbarium plans were first announced — and, in some circles, roundly ridiculed as an absurd appeal for pet-loving churchgoers’ money.
Other criticism of the idea was worse: housing dead pets in a consecrated space amounted to desecration, no matter how much St. Francis of Assisi loved animals.
“St. Francis Rest” received the blessing of church hierarchy (though the estimated $1.5 million required to refurbish the space would need to be raised from donors).
However, the burial site was the brainchild of former church volunteer Bill McLaughlin, who is the focus of a lawsuit filed by a former shrine employee alleging a quid-pro-quo sex scandal. Almost every time Snider broached the idea of discarding the columbarium plan with a congregation member, the answer was the same: “Thank you,” Snider said.
“We’re removing a point of contention,” he added. “There was too much arguing … that’s not what I’m here for.”
The catacomblike space that was to house pets could instead become a chapel area, with statues of saints where visitors could pray, he suggested.
But before the hall of saints can be realized, the church upstairs needs $500,000 worth of fixes. Snider noted the roof is leaking, the church’s 100-year old pews need to be refinished, and the wood floor needs to be replaced.
An anonymous donor provided most of the money — $418,000, to be exact — but the rest will have to come from the archdiocese, Snider said.