The Rev. Monsignor Leon Neu happened into another kind of ministry after retiring from the little brick church in the town of Randolph.
This one puts him at the brick animal shelter on Oak Street in Buffalo. There, as barks echo from cages down the hall, one particular brown-spotted white dog with sad eyes and the square looks of a pit bull waits for him by the front desk every morning.
When Cece sees Neu coming through the door, usually at about 10 a.m., her tail wags merrily for the 88-year-old priest in his straw hat and moccasins.
“She loves me. I’m her master. Aren’t I?” Neu said, leaning down to kiss Cece’s nose one morning last week. “You want another biscuit?”
Neu keeps his pockets filled, doling out bone-shaped dog cookies as they walk around the shelter’s downtown city block. He is one of 35 dog-walking volunteers who help the 60 or so residents at the city pound stay happy, social and well-behaved enough to be adopted after getting picked up as strays, turned in by owners who can no longer keep them, seized for biting someone, or, like Cece, losing a home because owners got involved with police in a drug-related case.
“The volunteers are priceless,” said Kelly McCartney, director of the shelter. McCartney gradually built up the program after she took the job in 1998.
“It started blooming,” she said.
Other devoted dog walkers include Tom Higgins, who owns a pet supplies store on Elmwood Avenue. He likes to take on the hardest cases. Ashley Acevedo, another volunteer, found comfort walking shelter dogs after her father’s death.
For Neu, McCartney didn’t bother with the usual training protocol. The retired priest was a natural.
“He kind of walks to his own drummer,” McCartney said. “He just touched my heart.”
Neu and Cece met only three months ago, but they seem to go way back. She reaches up to paw at his legs as he slips on the leash and heads to the sidewalk.
If Neu sits on the bench outside the shelter, Cece jumps onto his lap, looking comfortable and unfazed as her back legs slip off his knee.
She has the right answers for questions he asks in mild-mannered, low-key style and seems like a human with fur to him.
“This animal is remarkable. She’s the sweetest dog … she’s been locked up most of her life. Haven’t you babe?” Neu said.
Cece, who was bred to have puppies, wasn’t ready to hang out with people when she first came to the shelter. She was so timid and afraid that she wouldn’t go near a hand offering a treat.
To help her relax, staff set Cece up behind the counter with them. Neu remembers how they first met: Cece went straight to him when he walked into the office one morning.
“We’ve been buddies ever since,” he said.
The friendship between dog and priest charmed Bonnie Brown, a clerk whose desk is next to Cece’s bed.
“She’s coming out of her shell,” said Brown, who slips Cece pretzels from the bag by her keyboard.
The dog has a sense for when Neu is about to walk through the door.
Brown can spot him from a window too high up for a view from the floor, but that’s just about when Cece gets up and starts wagging her tail.
“It’s just amazing,” she said.
At his post in Randolph, near the Pennsylvania border, a Doberman Pinscher whose name he can no longer remember kept Neu company.
It was while on one of their morning walks in the snow that signaled the end. He slipped, fell flat on his face and broke his glasses in half. He thought he recovered, but then his knee swelled up. The doctor said he needed a replacement.
“You’ll never be able to be a priest again,” Neu remembers him saying.
He hated to leave.
“That was a marvelous place,” he said. “I went home not too happy.”
About 12 years ago, he moved to a Lackawanna retirement community for priests. He was closer to Cheektowaga, where he grew up the youngest of five in a German family. Nieces and nephews were around, but his siblings and parents were gone and the new home, which didn’t allow pets, was an adjustment.
Neu missed watching his old dog race down the hill in the backyard with her sister, who belonged to the dentist next door.
Since he started coming in most every morning for the last decade, he tuned into the rituals of some in his new, furry congregation.
One little dog danced on her hind legs in a circle around him as soon as he came to put on her leash.
Cece likes to be petted as she cools off next to Neu on the plastic couch in the shelter lobby.
After his lifetime of marrying, baptizing and advising people, Neu is now being ministered to by the shelter dogs.
“They get me out. They get me exercised. They show me attention and love,” he said.
As he talked and walked on Oak Street between Tupper and Genesee streets, Cece stayed close and kept the pace.
“She’s not fussy. She loves me. We walk together,” Neu said before turning to her.
“You want your belly rubbed?”
Apparently, she did. Cece took a seat on the sidewalk. Neu rubbed.
Both looked happy.