When she was about 4 years old, Elizabeth "Eli" Hess told her pastor that all pastors should have a donkey to celebrate Easter and Christmas.
"I have always wanted a donkey,'' said Hess, who grew up in Washington, D.C.
When she became an adult, she became a pastor herself. She now serves Trinity Lutheran Church in Juniata and previously served Geeseytown and Yellow Springs Lutheran parishes.
(Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec) Pastor Eli Hess of the Hollidaysburg area spends time with her donkey, Hodie. To the right is a horse carrier that the congregation at Trinity Lutheran purchased for Hess so she can transport the animal to churches for various holidays and events.
Hess, who lives on a farm in the area, got a call several years ago on Palm Sunday informing her that a truck driver from Texas was hauling livestock through the area, and he had a donkey who was headed to the slaughterhouse.
It was before they enacted no-slaughterhouse rules, she said. The driver was in Martinsburg for a mandatory rest stop and was using the livestock auction barns there to house the animals overnight.
The auction barn owners had called Hess, because they knew she wanted a donkey, she said. She lost no time in getting to the auction barns and rescued the 6-month old donkey.
Hess already had a horse so she housed the animals together. The two got along well, she said.
Soon she was fitting the donkey she named Hodie into her ministry in various ways, whether it was in her church or in other locations.
She intentionally named him "Hodie'' to go with "Donkey'' so that the two words together would sound like the name of the character made famous by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote.
"I always knew a donkey would be useful in ministry at various times,'' she said.
Hodie gets his biggest workout during the Christmas season. He is in the stable for live nativity scenes and participates in the Altoona holiday parade as part of a walking display sponsored by Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic High School.
A student portraying Mary rides on his back with Joseph walking alongside.
Simpson-Temple United Parish borrows Hodie for its live nativity and every two years, Martinsburg Lutheran Church stages a live nativity scene featuring Hodie, Hess said.
"Luckily, they all schedule different weekends so that he can go,'' she said.
Hodie makes appearances all year long.
In the spring, he is part of a procession on Palm Sunday at Bethany Lutheran Church in Altoona, where he goes around the block and then gives rides to the children.
In the summer, he makes appearances at several vacation Bible schools.
He is also a hit at the annual Spring Fling festival, held at Trinity Lutheran. The event is May 11 this year and is an outreach to the Juniata community with games and food. Hodie is part of a petting zoo.
During these outings, people get to see the black cross on his back, which marks him as a purebred donkey, Hess said. It runs down his back and across his shoulders.
"Legend has it that God marked them because they had a special purpose,'' said Hess referring to the biblical account of Jesus riding a donkey on Palm Sunday.
Although Hodie is Pastor Hess' animal, his "ministry" obviously extends beyond Trinity Lutheran.
Recognizing that, the congregation got an idea to express how much they appreciate her by doing something special to celebrate her 15th year of ordination several years ago.
"We think she's pretty great,'' said Judy Hale, Trinity's council president.
They gave her a gift they knew she needed - a horse carrier to transport Hodie.
"For years, she had been using other people's carriers to transport Hodie, and we knew that was a large inconvenience for her,'' Hale said.
The congregation collected $3,500, and after searching online and at other places they found a retailer in Indiana, Pa. who transported the horse carrier there from Ohio.
Hale and another council member went to Indiana to pick up the carrier and stored it on a property in Juniata until the celebration.
Hess almost blew the surprise when she eyed the carrier and asked if she could buy it. Luckily, the property owner was in on the surprise and told Hess it was already sold.
On the Sunday the congregation gave it to Hess, they waited until she finished the service then asked her to step outside. When she saw it, she was overcome with emotion.
"I just burst into tears,'' she said. "It was just incredible.''