In front of the Dog Chapel is a sign reading: “Welcome/All Creeds/All Breeds/No Dogmas/Allowed.” A row of four sculptures of dogs of stand before the sign (and a cat sculpture hides in the bushes below it).
Located at 143 Parks Road in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, the Dog Chapel looks like a classic white New England country church, erected at the top of a verdant hill, overlooking the surrounding green peaks. It’s part of Dog Mountain, a 150-acre property that’s the home of the Stephen Huneck Gallery, displaying the late artist’s folksy paintings and sculptures of canines. When Huneck died in 2010, The New York Times hailed the chapel as his “masterwork.”
“A place of peace, remembrance, and celebration honoring our beloved furry companions,” reads a sign taped between the front doors during a visit this August.
“Since dogs are family members, too,” Huneck wrote in 2010, “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.”
Stephen Huneck was born in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 8, 1948, and grew up one of seven children in a Roman Catholic family in Sudbury, Massachusetts. His mother painted murals on the walls of their houses, he said. “My father hated me and my mother,” Huneck told The Boston Globe in 1998. “He was a man whose emotions ranged from nasty to violent.”
And as a boy, Huneck struggled with severe dyslexia. But he found a home in art. He studied at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston—and met a fellow student by the name of Gwen Ide, whom he would marry in 1991.
“It was while I was driving a cab that I discovered antiques in garbage cans,” he told The Boston Globe in 1998. “I found a great chair, so I researched it and brought it home to my apartment to work on it. I became obsessed with antiques.” This led to work as an antique dealer. While repairing wooden pieces, he said, he learned to carve. But he acknowledged to The New York Times in 1988 that “I’d never made any real money in antiques.”
The couple lived in Maine, then Vermont. “We got snowed in here for two days,” he told The Boston Globe in 1998. “I had a beautiful piece of old pine, and I had an idea about carving an angel.” Huneck said his art career was sparked in the 1980s when a Manhattan art dealer spotted this sculpture, of a black man with wings, in the back of Huneck’s pickup and insisted on buying it.
“When I started making art full time, in 1984, I promised myself I would only do things I loved, not things that would be popular or profitable,” Huneck told The Boston Globe in 1998. “I decided not to worry about what the public would or wouldn’t like. The plus is that people seem to love my art; it makes them happy.”
Huneck carved woodcuts and sculptures depicting lions and snakes and nuns and arks and angels and devils. ”I go at it with an ax and a bunch of hand tools,” Huneck told The New York Times in 1988.
But mostly he carved dogs. Later he also illustrated children’s picture books starring a black Lab by the name of Sally who has an appointment with the veterinarian, goes on an outing to the beach, and visits the mountains and meets rabbits, skunks, a bear.
“My personal message is that we’ve all become so distanced from nature, and dogs are an important link with it,” Huneck told The New York Times in 2001. “It’s also about dogs: it’s saying they can be our guides. They can teach us so much just by their natures. Dogs have an incredible love which they can teach us.”
In the fall of 1994, Huneck was carrying a large carving down his studio stairs when he tripped. Gwen found him at the bottom bloody, with broken ribs. At the hospital, the 45-year-old contracted adult respiratory distress syndrome, which led to a two-month-long coma. When he came out of it, he had to learn to walk again.
The following year, Huneck bought the property that would become Dog Mountain.
“I was using a walker because my muscles had atrophied, moving with difficulty from one room into another so I could speak with Gwen,” Huneck wrote in 2010. “As I placed the walker over the threshold of the room a thought flooded my head: Build a dog chapel. My first reaction was excitement. And then I started thinking, ‘Geez, with what I owe in medical bills I’d be lucky to build a little dog house.’ But for months 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.”
At first, he thought of calling it St. Bernard’s. “This will be a spiritual place to bring your dog,” he told The Boston Globe in 1998. “I’ll carve dog pews; the music will be Gregorian chants, mixed with the howling of wolves. I’m going to paint a dog version of the Sistine Chapel, with angel dogs and the hand of God. The church will be lighted with stained-glass windows done with scenes of dogs. I can see plaster statues of Mary and Jesus with their dogs. I want a place to hold baptisms for litters.”
Not all this materialized, but after about three years of work, the Dog Chapel opened to the public on Memorial Day weekend in 2000. “Leashes are optional on Dog Mountain,” according the place’s website. “Dogs are not just welcome here, they are cherished! Dogs are free to run, play, swim and best of all meet other dogs!”
Two human doors flank a doggie door on the front of the chapel. Pull on the dog-shaped door handles (“All creatures welcome,” the door plates read) and you’ll find four pews facing a row of dog sculptures standing in the glow of a stained glass window topped by an image of an angel dog with wings. Six more stained glass windows fill the side walls—all recycled from a demolished church in upstate New York with Huneck’s dog motifs added in: a sad dog wearing a halo, many hands petting a dog, a hand offering a dog an ice cream cone. At the bottom, the windows read: faith, trust, friend, joy, play, peace. People wander in with their dogs.
But what’s most striking about the small chapel is that the walls are completely covered with photos and hand-written notes of love and sadness remembering dogs that have passed on. If you begin reading, it’s hard to avoid tears. Notes say:
• “Butter. It’s been 365 days without you. I feel only 1 day closer to accepting it. Miss you, old girl.”
• “Rest in Peace … May you have lots of snacks, runs, rubs, love and ‘smack downs’ in doggy heaven. I hope your Mommy gets better soon so she can come visit the Chapel for you too.”
• “Bigga, beloved dog of the Adams family of St. J. He came from a dog shop in Maine in 1992 and lived a long life as a caring loving dog, who survived being hit twice by cars. We love you + remember you always.”
• “You were my soul mate and to this day it’s how I describe you. I’ve never been so happy with an impulse decision. For six years we spent our days together and our nights spooning. You were the snuggliest best dog, and you gave pit bulls everywhere a good name. I will have dogs again in the future, but you will always be my very best monster. I miss our snuggles, and your love. I hope that you know how much I love you.”
• “Jake, you gave us so much enjoyment, love and comfort. You weren’t a good boy. You were the best.”
“As soon as the Dog Chapel was open to the public, I invited everyone who came to visit to put up a photo of their departed dog and to write a few sentences about what their dog meant to them,” Huneck wrote in 2010. “I had envisioned maybe someday having the foyer filled top to bottom with dog pictures. I never anticipated the whole building—every single space—covered with photos and words of remembrance, as the chapel is today.”
This August, a sign taped between the front doors announced: “The Chapel walls are now full, please post remembrance notes and photos in the albums provided on the entry table. Please do not leave cremains or memorial items other than written notes or photos no larger than the dimensions of the provided albums.”
By the early 2000s, Huneck had five dogs (a golden retriever, a Dalmatian, three Labs) and was operating galleries to sell his art in Woodstock, Vermont; Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Key West, Florida.
“I have this manic energy,” Huneck told The Boston Globe in 1998, “this little voice inside me that says, `Work, work, work.’ I have to be very disciplined with it. It’s a gift that can make you extremely creative—full of boundless energy and ideas—or it can kill you.”
Financial troubles forced Huneck to lay off 15 full-time employees near the start of 2010, leaving him deeply depressed, his wife told reporters. Within a week, in January 2010, the 61-year-old committed suicide. His wife told The Boston Globe that she “found him in his car parked outside his psychiatrist’s office in Littleton, [New Hampshire,] dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.”
“He felt that he had let me down, that he had let his employees down,” Gwen told The Boston Globe. “It’s so ridiculous because he had accomplished so much. Times were tough and he couldn’t imagine it changing.”
After his death, Mrs. Huneck struggled to keep up with property taxes for the site. She took her own life in June 2013, authorities decided, via carbon monoxide poisoning from burning charcoal in an enclosed space inside her home.
“Gwen never got over the loss of Stephen and missed him terribly every day,” employees at Dog Mountain said on the facility’s website at the time. “As you all know, after Stephen’s death, she devoted her life to continuing his legacy as a great artist. She continued to manage the gallery and she kept active in community affairs. She vowed to help turn St. Johnsbury into one of the most dog-friendly places in Vermont. Gwen became a beacon for people who had lost loved ones and pets and we think she absorbed a lot of that emotion and she may have had difficulty in releasing it. … We love you so much Gwennie and we will do everything we can to keep Dog Mountain going.”
Friends and family formed the nonprofit Friends of Dog Mountain, which has kept it in operation since.
“This is my created environment, both visually and spiritually,” Huneck told The Boston Globe in 1998. “After my illness, there is no little picture anymore, only the big picture now. When you build something, you are creating energy and then releasing it gracefully into the world. Art is something magical and spiritual. It brings you to a higher level.”
In 2014, after both Hunecks had passed, Abrams Books for Young Readers published Stephen Huneck’s children’s picture book “Sally Goes to Heaven.” It’s about an old, tired black Lab that spends her last day lying in the sun, then “wakes up in heaven.” There all dogs run free, sniffing gigantic piles of dirty socks, chasing frisbees, eating meatballs that grow on bushes, getting their tummies rubbed. “In heaven, all animals play together as friends.”
In the book, Huneck says, “Sally wishes she could comfort her family and friends and let them know that her pain is gone. But Sally isn’t sad for long. She knows that someday they will all be together in heaven again.”
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