Dog, owner attend Vineyard Haven church together

During the children's service at Grace Church on Sunday, Angel (far right, seated) looked as much at home as two young congregants in the pew ahead of her. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

Angel Grace celebrated her 10th birthday Sunday with cake, ice cream, and a batch of little friends. But first she went to church.

She snuggled as usual into her pew at Grace Church with a bright patchwork quilt and her favorite stuffed toy. Cuddling up to her mom, Lorraine Clark, she sat quietly as prayers were said and hymns were sung, and watched wide-eyed as the children gathered around the Rev. Rob Hensley for a story. “I know you all are just here for the cake,” he teased them gently, and they giggled in agreement.

But there was no frilly dress or party game for Angel Grace because she’s not a little girl but a fluffy white dog who has won the hearts of Grace Church’s children and adults alike. A bichon frise, her curly coat is frothy as cream, her dark eyes round as saucers. From her serene — indeed reverent — demeanor and snowy fur she really does appear to embody her name.

Ms. Clark is a devout churchgoer. So it makes perfect sense that Angel is too.

No special training was needed to teach the dog church manners, Ms. Clark said. “I brought her in at children’s story time to introduce her when she was just four months old. And she loved it!”

From then on, Angel Grace has been a regular, attending both the 9:15 am children’s service and the traditional 11 am worship right along with Ms. Clark.

Though her reputation has spread and visitors often look for “the dog who comes to church,” the children consider Angel Grace their own. Sunday morning many of them lingered at her pew or stopped by with a “Happy Birthday” wish. Over the years, Angel has often been a source of comfort for a shy young newcomer, and fussy or unhappy children have found a sympathetic friend in the soft little dog.

Naming her came easily, Ms. Clark said. “Angel” was in honor of her previous dog Sparky who had just died. And “Grace” for her beloved Grace Church.

Ms. Clark’s connection to Grace Church goes way back — to her wedding day in 1954 when she married Richard Clark there. She attended occasionally as she and Richard settled in Vineyard Haven and began a family.

It was some time after the death of her infant son, Dale, in 1958 that Ms. Clark became unshakably committed to the church. Still moved by the long-ago memory, she tells about the arrival of their youngest son, Tim. The baby boy was born on February 14, 1960, two years to the day after Dale had died, at the same minute, and shared his identical birth weight.

Ms. Clark had a powerful sense that the hand of God was working in her life. “I knew there was a God,” she said. “I had been given a gift, another child. It’s unbelievable that a child would be born on the same day the other had died, the same time, and the same birth weight.”

She became a faithful member of the friendly little Episcopal church on the corner of William Street and Woodlawn Avenue in Vineyard Haven. And soon she was bringing her four children too.

Ms. Clark says that the church is her second home and she can often be found there — at a Vestry meeting, checking out a plumbing or carpentry problem, serving soup at the Friday community supper, or overseeing the production of lobster rolls — always with characteristic good cheer. Sundays, she is likely to be in the kitchen or chatting with newcomers; at Christmas, as co-chair of Red Stocking, after weeks of frantic preparation she helps coordinate filling gift bags for needy children. Generosity to all is her motto, her life is about giving with a smile, and the word “tireless” might have been coined just for her.

And when Ms. Clark is busy elsewhere in the building Angel sits in the pew on her quilt, patiently waiting.

After Sunday’s final “Amen,” children piled into the parish hall, greeted by floating balloons, tables heaped with party favors, and a big white cake with frosting as fluffy as Angel’s fur. Parishioner Debbie Bessette baked the berry-flavored cake and topped it with a pooch face outlined in pink.

“Look at your cake, Angel! It looks just like you!” Ms. Clark said, delighting the children who raised a chorus of “Happy Birthday,” then helped blow out the candles. With the dog lounging on her lap and the children devouring cake and ice cream, Ms. Clark opened the presents — chew toys, dog treats, a necklace with a dog charm — and homemade cards bearing heartfelt greetings.

“Angel is the most well-behaved and compliant parishioner we have,” said Father Hensley with a grin. “She’s a good addition to the congregation.”

Judy Nichols reminisced about driving to an off-Island kennel with Ms. Clark to pick up the tiny pup 10 years ago. “Lorraine really studied those dogs before she got Angel,” she recalled.

Annabelle Brothers, six, like many others considers Angel Grace a personal friend and loves seeing her every Sunday. According to her mom, Stephanie, she looks forward to the party every year.

“I’ve known her since I first came to church,” Annabelle said proudly.

The party ended, leaving crumpled gift-wrap, cake crumbs, and sticky plates. The youngsters went home to rest up, but Angel Grace wasn’t ready for her nap yet.

After a quick outing and a few laps of water she and Ms. Clark headed back into church and settled in their pew for the 11 o’clock service.