“Forty-one years ago today, God gave me my life back. I was hit by a car and in a coma for 21 days. I used to ask God, ‘Why didn’t you let me die?’ … but, now I know. Thank you Jesus for letting me live.”

Connie Yepez Maradiaga posted this touching status update on her Facebook profile on Aug. 22, 2016 — the anniversary of the fateful day when, as an adorable and bubbly dark-haired, brown-eyed 4-year-old little girl, she was lured across the street by the telltale melodic sounds of the neighborhood ice cream truck.

The unexpected impact of the violent crash on her fragile little frame was devastating — and very nearly fatal. But, miraculously, little Connie emerged from a comatose state three weeks later in the hospital, surrounded by her loved ones. 

A second chance at life — “God gave me my life back” — and it has included an unwavering devotion in God, as well as myriad challenges and lingering questions.

Throughout her childhood, youth and adult life Connie has experienced highs and lows, joys and darkness, loneliness and companionship — and the blessings of her three children, ages 9, 13 and 21, her 14-year marriage and her Catholic faith.

But in December of 2013, Connie felt she had finally discovered the answer to that one recurring haunting question that was wont to wrangle its way into her mind on her darkest days and most vulnerable moments: “Why didn’t you let me die?”

And the reply came in the form of a sickly four-legged, tick-ridden abandoned doggie she spotted on the street one day, in desperate need of rescue, care and love. She called a local animal rescue shelter, and the rest … has become a vocation.

“Within the [next] year I was able to save 22 lives and that’s how God prepared my heart,” said Connie, who currently works part-time for a not-for-profit animal rescue, and devotes her free time to: (1) her family and; (2) continuous rescue efforts via local no-kill shelters, independent animal advocates and an extensive online network of trusted like-minded animal lovers on Facebook and beyond.

“Yes, my kids are the reasons I live,” she told Angelus News. But in rescuing God’s “first creatures,” she feels she is fulfilling God’s mandate to be good stewards toward all creation, to “cultivate it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). The recent feast of St. Francis of Assisi — observed Oct. 4, with the Blessing of the Animals at churches the world over — was a reminder of that required stewardship.

“God created [animals] first. They are just like us — they feel, they love. … They get hungry, thirsty, cold, hot, [and] their love is unconditional,” she explained. “They also feel fear and get scared. When we are abused it’s hard for us to trust again, and [animals] go through the same process. I believe in helping them because God made us superior so that we can be their voice and help them.”

Blessing of the Animals

The weekend before the feast of St. Francis — considered the patron saint of animals and ecology/environment — St. Francis of Assisi Church in Los Angeles was one of numerous parishes across the Archdiocese of Los Angeles that welcomed a diverse procession of pets during its yearly Blessing of the Animals.

“Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures,” begins the traditional prayer, which is offered as the animal is gently sprinkled with holy water.

“You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land,” continues the blessing prayer. “You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this pet. By the power of your love, enable it to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.”

The custom is conducted in honor of St. Francis’ love for all creation, in particular the sentiments expressed in his “Canticle of the Creatures,” which states, in part, “All praise to you, oh Lord, for all these brother and sister creatures.”

According to Father Rene Juarez, OFM, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Francis’ writings about, and love for, all creation can be described as “a cosmic experience,” because they encompass “the whole universe” — from celestial bodies, such as “Sister Moon,” to the smallest of creatures among us.

St. Francis’ teachings are especially relevant in our modern-day lives, Father Juarez explained, given our increasing environmental/ecological concerns across the globe, and our ever-growing affection for, and the elevated status of, our pets. 

Pets are commonplace in households of all sizes around the world. In the U.S. alone, there are an estimated 70 million pet dogs, 75 million cats and more than 8 million birds, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Pets have become, quite simply, “members of the family,” said Hal Bastian, a development consultant for Downtown Los Angeles, who helped launch the Dog Day Afternoon community event for dog lovers at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels 10 years ago.

“The first year we had 100 dogs [and their owners] attend, [and] this last year there were over 1,000,” said Bastian, noting that the increasing popularity can be seen as an indication of the special bond between pets and their owners. “I think that our dogs help us through good times and bad, and it’s pretty remarkable.”

Deacon Brian Conroy of St. Mel’s Parish in Woodland Hills, which also hosted animal blessings in celebration of the feast of St. Francis, described witnessing the “strong connection that people have between their animals and their spirituality, and I think it’s because they recognize the gift of life even in those animals.”

Further, through his work in RCIA/initiation ministry, Deacon Conroy has even met several individuals “who have had conversion experiences because of their animals.” He met one particular man who had been an agnostic/atheist. His wife quietly and separately practiced her Catholic faith and raised their children in the faith. The family had a little dog he was very attached to — and one day he was informed that he would have to say good-bye.

“When the vet told him he had to put him down … he wanted to stay with him,” recalled Deacon Conroy. “He said, ‘I want to hold him, I don’t want to abandon him.’ He held the little dog when the shot was administered and he saw life ebbing out of his eyes — and he realized that there’s more to life than the surface presents. It was in the appreciation of the life of that little dog that he came to faith.”

Love transforms lives

For Connie, who has a pet poodle named Lui and is currently fostering two other dogs to help prepare them for adoption, loving and rescuing animals has become a way of life — which she expects to continue indefinitely.

“I am a voice for doggies,” said Connie, who is a parishioner at Our Lady of Perpetual Church in Downey. “I don’t see myself living without rescue [because] it completes my life. … I am doing something for those that can’t repay me.”

It’s all about love, she stressed, adding, “Love transforms lives — and love wins.”