Cismont ceremony: Bless the beasts and the hunters

On November 28, an atypical religious service will take place at Grace Episcopal Church near Keswick. For over 70 years, the dozens of hounds belonging to the Keswick Hunt Club have received a special Thanksgiving treat.

With its hymns, gospel readings, and recitation of the Lord's Prayer, the Blessing of the Hounds has all the trappings of a regular Episcopal Sunday service– until the part where the hounds (and riders, horses, and foxes) receive the rector's blessing.

In 1929, master of Foxhounds John Stewart and the Rev. Frank Robinson started the tradition at the antebellum stone church in Cismont, basing their ceremony on the ancient Feast of St. Hubert, patron saint of hunters. An 8th century Frenchman, St. Hubert converted to Christianity after he saw a glowing crucifix between the antlers of a stag he was pursuing.

While other hunts across the country perform variations on the Blessing of the Hounds, Keswick Hunt's is generally accepted as the earliest on record, according to Barclay Rives, author of The 100 Year History of the Keswick Hunt Club.

The Blessing of the Hounds is also a fundraiser– fox hunters in scarlet coats take up the offering in their velvet hunt caps. In past years, the SPCA and Habitat for Humanity have been the chosen recipients of the collection.

Once the hounds have been blessed and the caps have been passed, the fox hunters head out for a day of sport.