On Sunday mornings, campers gather at the outdoor chapel, sitting in rough-hewn pews as a dog with dark-golden hair sedately paces to the altar and lies down. She observes the service as if to ensure all is done properly.
“If I could just teach her how to tuck the holy pyx [used to carry the Eucharist] under her chin, I wouldn’t be necessary,” says the Rev. Vincent J. Eckholm, rector of St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church in Antioch, Ill., “She gets all their attention anyway.”
The dog is his Golden Retriever, Erika greeter, the church’s office comforter, teacher and confessor. Whether ministering to vacationers, taking communion to homebound parishioners or welcoming new families to the congregation, Erika and Eckholm usually walk side by side. If she isn’t beside him, Eckholm hears about it.
Erika’s contribution to his congregation was brought home one rainy day a few years ago. Fearing homebound parishioners wouldn’t appreciate her muddy paws, Eckholm left Erika at the rectory. Every parishioner he visited that day asked, “Where’s Erika?” and without fail admonished him never to visit without her again. He never has.
Almost 11 years has passed since Eckholm courted his wife-to-be, Betsy, whose dog, Tess, was about to whelp. “Erika was the last of the litter, and Betsy wasn’t sure about keeping the runt,” he recalls. But the little puppy bonded to him from the beginning.
“I never trained her,” Eckholm says. Nor did he clip her to a leash: “My voice is my leash.”
Erika has comforted her owner, too, as Betsy succumbed to a brain tumor a few years ago, and recently Tess’ ashes were buried with her. The pack now consists of Eckholm, Erika and her grown puppy, Alex.
“Erika is an extraordinarily gentle and caring creature, expressing a compassion that many people do not offer each other,” says Nancy Turpel-De Ville, a family friend in Cedar Park, Texas. Indeed, the dog’s attentive gaze and quiet, trusting demeanor has a calming effect. She enables those with burdened souls to relax, to focus on something besides their troubles, which often allows a deeper and more satisfying conversation with Eckholm.