A priest's best friend – how Coco the guide dog will be helping serve parishioners this Holy Week and Easter

Canon Stephne van der Toorn and her guide dog Coco.Stephne van der Toorn

A loyal guide dog will be instrumental in Easter services in one Suffolk village this year.

Coco, a black retriever/labrador cross will, as ever, be by the side of Canon Stephne van der Toorn, who is parish priest in Brantham, as she presides over the busy Holy Week period and beyond.

The loveable canine helps Stephne carry out her pastoral duties and offers a warm welcome to parishioners.

Stephne, 63, from South Africa, is the rector of two churches under the Benefice of East Bergholt and Brantham: St Mary the Virgin and St Michael the Archangel. She was registered blind in 2011 because of glaucoma, after which she reached out to the charity Guide Dogs for support.

Coco now supports Stephne by helping her visit the homes of local parishioners and accompanies her as she delivers sermons and conducts ceremonies.

Stephne says: 'It's often noted that dogs have a calming influence and I've certainly noticed that with Coco. In my line of work I meet people in emotional situations. Whether that be the nerves and excitement that come with getting married or the sadness that presents itself at a funeral, whatever the occasion, Coco is by my side, on hand with empathetic big brown eyes and a calming presence.'

Coco helps tend to the needs of parishioners. 'I really notice people settle around her, she's such a peaceful dog and very much at home in the church,' Stephne says. 'She remains unfazed by her surroundings, whether it be large crowds at Christmas services or loud organs and trumpets at mass. It takes a lot to startle her.'

Because of Coco's relaxed nature she can often be spotted at the local schools where Stephne is a governor and leads assemblies. The dog's local reputation has also seen her become quite the local celebrity. Stephne says: 'When out and about I often hear "Hello gorgeous" and I know they're speaking to Coco!'

Coco assists Stephne all year round and, during weddings, the best men are given instructions on how to ensure the dog stays put.

Stephne has previously spoken about how going blind made her a better listener.