“Welcome: All Creeds, All Breeds. No Dogmas Allowed.”
So reads the proclamation at the entrance to the Dog Chapel, the wonderful destination that sits on Dog Mountain, just outside of St. Johnsbury, Vermont.
Certainly this is a warm and inclusive welcome, but exactly what is this Dog Chapel? Or this Dog Mountain? And where in Vermont is St. Johnsbury?
In answer to these questions:
The Dog Chapel is a creation of the late Stephen Huneck, an internationally known and much-loved artist who was also the author and illustrator of ten best-selling children’s books. This extraordinary place is Huneck’s most famous work and his masterpiece. In his own words: “I look at this chapel as the largest artwork of my life, and my most personal.” It is located on Dog Mountain, a 150-acre property consisting of dog-friendly trails, trout ponds, dog sculptures, an art gallery and, of course, the aforementioned chapel. St. Johnsbury, in the eastern half of the state, is about forty-eight miles south of the United States/Canada border.
While designed to resemble a small New England village church, the Dog Chapel on Dog Mountain is non-denominational. Its purpose is simply to celebrate the spiritual connection between dogs and people. No one who has ever loved a dog could deny this connection.
Once inside the Chapel there are dog details everywhere you look. The pews are flanked by seated canines, carved dogs of all breeds, and even a few ostensibly tranquil cats. The stained glass windows depict dogs and there is, understandably, a dog door so that man’s best friends can come and go at their own paces.
On my visit I noticed absolutely no hostility among the dogs who wandered around the property on that particular day. There were resident canines as well as those who were part of other visitors’ entourages, and they all sniffed around in harmony. My own Jane, a somewhat reticent and shy Pug, seemed to be more energetic than usual and happily greeted others of her species in a gracious manner as she explored every nook and cranny.
If you should be lucky enough to visit the Dog Chapel, be prepared to dissolve into tears when you first enter. What other reaction could any true dog-lover have to the “Remembrance Walls” that greet you? What other reaction could there be to the literally thousands of photographs and notes written in celebration and remembrance of the visitors’ beloved companions who are now deceased?
Mostly written on Post-it notes and thumbtacked onto the walls of the Chapel, these notes make an eloquent and moving statement. “Sadie, I still miss you every day. You were my best friend.” “Remembering Tippy and Fluffy. I miss my childhood pups.” “Rest in Peace, big Buddy Blitz. We still miss you.” “I miss you Frank, my little Hot Dog of sixteen years. Thanks for all the happiness you brought me.” “Rebel—First puppy, never forgotten. Someday we’ll meet again and you’ll play with the Pugs.”
Huneck himself wrote about his inspiration for this magical place:
“Fifteen years ago I became gravely ill. I was in a coma for two months. The doctors had little hope for my recovery, but recover I did. I had to learn to walk, write, and carve all over again. You’ve heard the expression ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ My illness did make me stronger, and it also made me more sensitive, and more appreciative of life. . . .
“During the time following my recovery, I thought a lot about life and death. I pondered the rituals we perform when a person dies, such as throwing a handful of dirt on the lowered casket to symbolize that the person has passed on, which helps bring closure for the living. Since dogs are family members, too, I thought it would be wonderful if we could create a ritual space to help achieve closure and lessen the pain when we lose a beloved dog.
“I remember a particular evening early in my recovery very clearly. I was using a walker because my muscles had atrophied, moving with difficulty from one room into another . . . As I placed the walker over the threshold of the room a thought flooded my head: build a dog chapel. . . .
“I couldn’t get the idea of the Dog Chapel out of my mind. I wanted to build a chapel in the style of an 1820s Vermont church on Dog Mountain, our mountaintop farm. I wanted it to fit into the landscape, as if it had always been there.”
Stephen Huneck was born on October 8, 1948 in Columbus, Ohio, but he was brought up in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Reportedly unhappy at home and severely dyslexic, he studied for a while at the Massachusetts College of Art before becoming an antique furniture picker and dealer. Through repairing wooden pieces for his trade, he taught himself how to carve and in 1984, one of these original works caught the eye of a prominent East Coast art dealer. Soon afterwards, in the way of happy endings, Huneck was making art full time. According to the New York Times, he “achieved a level of success that comes to few outsider artists. His work was sought after by collectors, exhibited widely and featured often in the news media.”
Seeking to understand this appeal, Roberta Vesley, the former library director of the AKC wrote: “In the world of struggling artists, Stephen Huneck’s success was meteoric. He was a strong believer in fate, and perhaps that is part of the explanation. There is no doubt that his figures are whimsical, amusing, and charming, but they also have the power to evoke an immediate emotional response in anyone who sees them. Therein lies their wide and ever-growing appeal.”
But this story does not have an entirely happy ending.
Huneck and his wife, Gwen, were married for thirty-five years, and although they never had children, they always had dogs. They both strongly believed in the healing power of these beloved canines but, alas, this belief was not strong enough to overcome the artist’s lifelong depression. On January 7, 2010, despondent over having to lay off many of the people he had hired to work at Dog Mountain, Huneck committed suicide; Gwen followed him in June 2013.
What makes this tragedy especially sad is that today Dog Mountain still attracts visitors and continues as a testament to the extraordinary bond which exists between man and his best friend. If only the Hunecks could have understood and appreciated what they had accomplished.
Stephen Huneck Gallery at Dog Mountain
143 Parks Road
St. Johnsbury, VT 05819