JANESVILLE

The newest member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church is calm, friendly and furry.

Mary, a 2-year-old golden retriever, is a comfort dog from Lutheran Church Charities that will do community outreach work for St. Paul’s. The church held a ceremony Sunday to remove Mary’s training vest and give her a permanent one.

Other Lutheran Church Charities comfort dogs from Wisconsin and Illinois also attended. Parishioners waiting for Sunday services to begin immediately gravitated toward the retrievers to visit and pet them.

Cheryl Skelly of St. Paul’s said the church got the idea two years ago and has been preparing ever since. A few weeks ago, they finally got the call from Lutheran Church Charities that Mary was ready for pickup.

St. Paul’s plans to use Mary to connect to people suffering from trauma, she said.

“We wanted to find a ministry that would reach outside the walls of our church out into the community and beyond. We thought this was a good way to do it,” Skelly said. “It’s not about the dog. The dog is a tool, a bridge, to reach out to people and find people who are possibly hurting or suffering either emotionally or physically.”

Mary’s team of handlers is known as the church’s “comfort dog ministry.” The church doesn’t hide the cross on Mary’s vest, but the dog isn’t a promotional tool, Skelly said.

If people want to pray with the dog, they can.

But Mary will be involved in many situations that have nothing to do with St. Paul’s, such as appearing at Janesville events or helping kids read at schools and libraries, she said.

A dog can break down barriers humans can’t.

Josh Gale, the executive director of Lutheran Church Charities, said dogs can help lower blood pressure and decrease stress.

They can empower victims testifying in court or offer support to those affected by a natural disaster, he said.

When the organization chooses where to place its comfort dogs, it looks for congregations or schools with a community-minded focus. They aren’t meant as pets, Gale said.

St. Paul’s raised money to pay for Mary. Skelly did not share the specific cost but said it was worth the money.

Despite being at the church for less than a month, Mary is already making an impact in Janesville.

“We’ve already had one experience where we know this lady is suffering and struggling. We probably would’ve walked right by her at the library. She was walking in, we were walking out,” Skelly said. “But she goes, ‘Oh, doggy!’ And because of that we said hello and got her life story.

“She really poured some stuff out to us that we could tell she needed to pour out to us. It was because of the dog, the tool we had.”

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