Going to the Dog Chapel. . .

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By Jennifer Huget
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 6, 2003

If I were in charge of Vermont tourism, I'd bill the state as the Land of Small Pleasures. That would no doubt irk the champions of the Green Mountain State's more prominent pleasures -- skiing, golfing, leaf-peeping. But to me, a trip to Vermont means simplicity: tooling along uncongested highways, watching hills roll past in waves, stopping now and then for a cheese-factory tour or to check out a quirky attraction.

Luckily, Vermont is full of low-profile destinations that serve as ample justification for loading husband and kids in the car for a road trip.

That's what we did this spring when we heard about the Dog Chapel in St. Johnsbury, a place in northeast Vermont where man and dog can celebrate their mutual bonds.

Artist/author/dog lover Stephen Huneck started building his masterpiece in 1997, after a near-death experience brought him face-to-snout with a mysterious half-canine apparition. The encounter inspired him to create a work of art as homage to man's best friend. (The apparition didn't actually mention a chapel; that part was Huneck's idea.) Today, visitors from all over creation descend each year on Dog Mountain, the 375-acre homestead of Huneck and his wife, Gwen.

Our quirk-meters on high alert, we decided to make that pilgrimage ourselves.

If in fact dogs do go to Heaven, the realm to which they ascend must be pretty much like Dog Mountain, about 10 minutes from downtown St. Johnsbury. From a distance, it's just another of the countless rounded hills fuzzy with deciduous forest that cuddle Vermont highways. But as you get closer, a large "Dog Mountain" sign puts you on notice that this place is different. Here, humans take a back seat to their canine companions.

Even on the driveway leading to the top of the mountain we were surrounded by dogs. Actually, statues of dogs. A row of dog busts mounted on Grecian columns lines the road leading to the Stephen Huneck Gallery and the Dog Chapel next door.

The chapel looks like any other New England chapel: white clapboard, pitched roof, tall steeple . . . winged Labrador weather vane.

Huneck -- known for his clever wood block prints and carvings of Labradors and his children's books recounting his (now dearly departed) dog Sally's adventures -- has installed doggy details at every turn. The pews are flanked by sitting dogs. Carved wooden dogs of all breeds, plus a few stray cats, perch everywhere. Stained-glass windows depict dogs licking ice cream cones, playing with balls and getting petted by human hands. A dog door permits pooches to enter on their own terms (dogs are more than welcome here, as they are everywhere on Dog Mountain).

It all sounds pretty silly, and in less skilled hands it would be. But Huneck's a legit artist, and what sounds ludicrous on paper achieves a kind of sublime wit. To my surprise, I found myself moved by the Dog Chapel's quiet simplicity and the kind spirit behind it. As for the kids, they reveled in romping outdoors with the Hunecks' dogs and feeding fish in the nearby pond.

A sign out front welcomes "All Creeds, All Breeds" but warns, "No Dogmas Allowed." Inside there's no reference to any particular deity, and the music is nondenominational New Age. (Huneck has thoughtfully left a remote on the front pew so visitors can turn the music down -- or off.)

As they have through the ages, art, religion (of a sort) and commerce mingle freely at the Dog Chapel. Hymnal boxes hold copies of Huneck's newest book, "The Dog Chapel," which can be purchased at the gallery. Framed prints hanging in the chapel are likewise for sale, though Huneck has the good grace not to list prices.


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© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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