Priest’s dog helps parish make best of pandemic

Fr. Tom Reynebeau says ‘Ruby Red’ is a familiar face around Resurrection Church

ALLOUEZ — Not every parish has a 17-pound evangelizer. But then not every parish has a parish puppy.

Meet Ruby Red, a mini goldendoodle belonging to Fr. Tom Reynebeau, pastor of Resurrection Parish. Ruby was born on Nov. 26, 2019, and joined Fr. Tom in March.

Fr. Tom Reynebeau and Ruby Red are pictured near the office of Resurrection Church Sept. 15. “She is a great … evangelizer,” said Fr. Reynebeau. “She just breaks the ground to be able to talk about more challenging things.” (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

“She’s three-quarters poodle and one-quarter goldendoodle,” the priest said. “She’s got a lot of poodle look in her and she’s really cute.”

Ruby is Fr. Tom’s second “parish dog.” Mia, an English sheepdog, was with him for many years when he served as pastor at St. Jude in Oshkosh. Mia passed about two years ago and Fr. Tom started looking for another “church dog” earlier this year.

“The intentional goal — I was just coming on board here at Resurrection,” he explained. “It was a good time to have a dog to bring the staff together. And ultimately, to bring parishioners together, … a ‘breaking the ice’ communication help. … Everybody became her friend. She would go from one office to the next, visiting here and there. She brought people together.”

Ruby came from Milwaukee. Fr. Tom went to see her and decided he’d think about her.

“I left and said, ‘Give me a couple of days.’ A couple of miles down the road, it just popped into my brain: ‘Ruby. She looks like a Ruby.’ Her hair, because of the retriever, it’s reddish. So Ruby the Red.”

Once she had a name, Fr. Tom had to go right back for her.

You wouldn’t know it now, but baby Ruby was quite shy.

“She was in the kitchen of the guy’s house,” Fr. Tom recalled. “And she did an Army crawl on her elbows and her knees toward me. Very subtle and shy. She was being very careful. She was that reserved. She was the runt of the litter and kind of left behind.”

Fr. Tom worked on that right away, bringing Ruby to the office and on walks around the neighborhood.

“It was fun to watch her open up and learn to trust more,” he said.

“She got to learn the staff and then a couple of other people would come in. And she’s not shy anymore.”

Ruby liked everyone and everyone liked her, both at the parish, as well as around the blocks near the parish. So when COVID-19 hit in March, Fr. Tom’s puppy was a natural to keep people together while they were apart.

“That’s when she went viral,” Fr. Tom said. “She became part of our Flocknotes, our ‘church of the home’ emails going out. Every day, there was a new photo or video of Ruby. And more than one person said, ‘There were a lot of things on the emails, but, yeah, we only wanted to look at the pictures of Ruby.’”

Fr. Tom was pleased that people “connected with her” and he found that Ruby added another dimension of outreach — what he calls “the softer side of who we are as parish.”

Lots of virtual experiences of Ruby followed. There was an Easter greeting video from Fr. Tom and Ruby in the flower-bedecked church. She was in some homilies when Masses were livestreamed during the church closure. And, as her popularity grew, there was a weekly drive-by in the parish parking lot. People could come by in their cars and wave at Fr. Tom and Ruby.

“In the end,” Fr. Tom told The Compass, “it was me meeting people and being out there for people to come and say hello. (But) the biggest hype was coming to see the dog. They might bring me a little treat, but Ruby definitely. Some people only brought a treat for the dog.”

Even if he didn’t get a treat, Fr. Tom always felt the drive-bys brought gains.

“It was a good reason to come back to the church property,” he said, “during the time when we were not really allowed (in the church).”

And more than a dog visit happened.

“There were a couple, a few confessions, along the way,” Fr. Tom said. “People just loved being able to talk about the challenge of being isolated and missing coming to the church. A little venting going on.”

The same happens as he walks Ruby around the neighborhood. He says most people recognize Ruby and know her by her name. He thinks many even know her name better than his.

“She is a great, as dogs are, a great evangelizer as far as me meeting people out on the streets,” he said. “She’s a very common point of conversation, a common point of compassion, of being able to talk about more difficult issues that come up. So she just breaks the ground to be able to talk about more challenging things.”

As an evangelizer, Ruby helps in other challenging situations — not just “venting” on the street. Fr. Tom has even brought her into funeral planning. First, he asks if everyone is comfortable having a dog in the room.

“I bring her in and, again,” he said, “she just brings people together and helps with the emotions and smoothing things to get into more challenging issues.”

Ruby has also been at outdoor Masses this summer, with social distancing. Fr. Tom said someone is always willing to “adopt Ruby” for the Mass. And he hears her “woof” as she recognizes his voice over the speakers.

“People connected with her,” Fr. Tom said. “It was another dimension of outreach to the parish.”

Despite all her skills in parish work, Ruby is still a puppy. So she does puppy things. Her antics are well known on videos — like the time she wrapped her leash around the side table where Fr. Tom had just placed a glass of wine. Both puppy and master ended up with a bath experience. Ruby, like all puppies, also loves to chew, and has lots of leather chew toys. And other things.

“I was using a computer cord,” Fr. Tom said, “and took it out of the case and the end was chewed off.”

It’s a learning time for both Ruby and her owner.

“Part of having a second church dog is that I am more aware of what that means,” the priest explained, “and what are good ways to have her be around people. She’s a nice, soft presence of the church. I enjoy working with her.”