A new customer samples the product at the Blessing of the Animals at St. Luke’s, Jamestown, on Oct. 3.
[The Dioceses of Western New York & Northwestern Pennsylvania] 2021 may be receiving mixed reviews from humans, but at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jamestown, New York, everyone agrees it has been a good year for dogs. Last spring, the parish partnered with the Mental Health Association (MHA) of Chautauqua County to create Father Bernard’s Blessed Biscuits, all-natural dog treats produced by a social enterprise that aims to create employment and training opportunities for people in recovery from addiction or mental health issues. The biscuits — made with gluten-free flour, oats, peanut butter, and water — debuted at the Jamestown Public Market in June, and since then, the initiative has expanded to include pop-up kiosks at local holiday events, a mail-order business that ships the dog biscuits across the country, and even T-shirts.
“We’re creating kind of a socially conscious enterprise that is really not designed to make a profit, but it was designed for two particular audiences: one is conscientious consumers looking for ways to make the kind of world they want with their dollars, and then also for folks who are on the other end and perhaps have fallen out of the workforce due to internal or external barriers,” said the Rev. Luke Fodor, rector of St. Luke’s, who conceived of the initiative. “Father Bernard’s exists to change our community for the better by creating a culture of connection.”
The hub of those connections is the kitchen at St. Luke’s, where a crew of MHA clients gathers twice each week to bake, package and fulfill orders for the dog biscuits. Along the way, they learn employment-related skills such as workplace ethics, maintaining proper boundaries and digital communications. This summer, participants sold the biscuits at the market, practicing customer service skills and meeting satisfied two-legged and four-legged customers.
Opportunities for supportive connection can be hard to come by for people in recovery, says Steven Cobb, executive director of the MHA.
“The lack of opportunity for our participants to work is an issue in a community where poverty is so prevalent,” he said. “Adding the support that a church can bring increases our participants’ opportunities to deepen their recovery and find long-term wellness. We believe that by partnering in this social enterprise we will be able to provide a different type of support for people returning to the workforce that we could not do by ourselves.”
Sean Jones, a parishioner at St. Luke’s and certified recovery peer advocate at the MHA, knows firsthand about the value of community connections for people in recovery. Jones, who oversees the crew of MHA clients that produces Father Bernard’s biscuits, got his culinary start at his family’s bakery in Jamestown and spent more than two decades in the restaurant industry until being sidelined by his own struggles with substance abuse and mental health issues.
“The turmoil and pain were always there and dragging me down time after time,” he said. “During this battle I had to deal with many different legal issues, being on the verge of homelessness, family issues and deep depression. In 2015 I was charged with my third DWI, and that is when I finally realized my life had to change for the better.”
After celebrating his second sobriety anniversary, Jones began volunteering at MHA, teaching a cooking class for people in recovery to help them prepare healthy meals on a budget. After he had volunteered for a year, the agency hired him full-time.
Father Bernard’s, he said, gives him the ability to use his culinary skills to contribute to the community that supported him in his recovery. “Being able to bake the biscuits and work alongside the participants and to move forward in life with them while helping to teach them the baking skills I was taught many years ago is a great way for me to give back,” he said.
Word about Father Bernard’s is spreading across the Episcopal Church. Nearly 30 congregations from Alaska to Massachusetts distributed Father Bernard’s Biscuits at their St. Francis Day pet blessings in October, and the reviews, at least from humans, were excellent.
“I was so excited to learn about the mission behind Father Bernard’s Blessed Biscuits,” the Rev. Michael Way, priest-in-charge of Christ Episcopal Church, Middletown, New Jersey, said after sharing the biscuits with more than a dozen dogs at the parish’s pet blessing. “An enterprise like Father Bernard’s Blessed Biscuits demonstrates how we can be joyful and creative in our efforts to build community, care for the planet and provide practical help to those in recovery from addiction.”
The biscuits have also won the approval of Dr. Robert Goodell Rappole, a veterinarian who owns Moonbrook Veterinary Hospital in Jamestown and serves as adviser to the project. “Father B’s Biscuits are made from human-grade ingredients in a kitchen, not a factory,” he said, calling them “a healthy, safe treat that will get a wag from your pet and help our community, as well.”
In the new year, Fodor hopes to create an even bigger network for Father Bernard’s. The circular biscuits, he says, “represent the ecosystem of connection and wellness that forms when those of out of the workforce — isolated by mental health and recovery struggles — are reconnected and resourced by community. Making people part of a bigger system is what helps them find meaning and purpose in the world.”
Father Bernard’s Blessed Biscuits are available online. Order by Dec. 19 for delivery by Christmas.