BY BLOG EDITOR LAUREN MAULDIN
There aren’t many perfect places on earth, but the Dog Chapel in St. Johnsbury, Vermont is one of them. Folk artist Stephen Huneck and his wife bought the 150 acre mountaintop property in 1995. Stephen turned an old barn into his art studio where he created woodblock prints of the Vermont countryside, farm animals and above all else — dogs. Mostly Labrador retrievers, often in the likeness of his own black lab, Sally.
The prints feature smiling, blocky bodied dogs sledding down snowy hills or swimming in the water with wide, brown sticks in their mouths. At the bottom he often adds a simplistic phrase in capital letters. 2’s COMPANY – 3’s A PACK! LIFE IS A BALL! DOGS MAKE PEOPLE HUMAN. Dogs are so integral to Huneck’s art and lifestyle that they are always welcome off leash at Dog Mountain. The grounds around Stephen’s studio were made into a canine paradise with an agility course, hiking trails, swimming pond and at the epicenter of it all — the Dog Chapel.
The tiny, 1820’s Vermont style church is Stephen’s most beloved artwork. After suffering a severe illness which left him in a coma for two months, Stephen came up with the idea during a long recovery. “I thought a lot about life and death,” he said in his book, Even Bad Dogs Go to Heaven. “I pondered the rituals we perform when a person dies [to] 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 loves a beloved dog.” The result is the Dog Chapel, an approximately 500 square feet open room at the base of the mountain by Stephen’s studio. The sign out front says:
NO DOGMAS ALLOWED
The inside is covered with artwork devoted to the dog. Pews line the main room, with hand carved wooden Golden Retrievers and Black Labs holding up the benches. Stained glass windows glow the tiny room, each decorated with dog motifs and a block letter inscription at the bottom. A dog surrounded by wild ivy says, Peace. One swimming for a ball in the ocean, Play. Another covered in hands petting its black fur, Friend. It’s friendship and love that are the heart of dog chapel, because even as impressive as Huneck’s art is in the space, it’s what the visitors that have brought that makes it perfect.
Every square inch of the walls are covered in handwritten notes, pictures and cards for beloved pets that have passed. The colorful squares of paper and glossy photos taped to the wall sway and shuffle when a breeze kicks in through the front door. People have traveled from all over the country, the globe, to tack up a picture of a dog or cat they loved. The tributes crawl into the ceiling, because the chapel can barely contain all of the love.
I first visited the Dog Chapel with my late husband and our two dogs. We walked our pups quietly through the pews, glancing over the cards and photos on the walls. My husband’s Boston Terrier snuffled on the ground, snorting up smells from all the other dogs who had walked through that space. After losing my husband and his little dog, I searched for a perfect place to leave their remains. I wanted their ashes, mixed together in a small wooden box, to rest under beams of light in love. So seven years after my first visit, I returned to the Dog Chapel. I taped a little note to that bug-eyed Boston Terrier up on the wall, and left the wooden box in the corner.
This little building is a haven for animal lovers from all over the world. It serves as a place of beauty and healing. Friends of Dog Mountain, established in 2015, operates with the mission to steward, manage and sustain the 150-acre Dog Mountain property as a public community for dogs and people. The Dog Chapel and surrounding property is not only a perfect place – it’s a gift to all who pilgrimage there.
To donate, learn more about Dog Mountain or view Stephen Huneck’s art, visit www.dogmt.com