To Dog Be the Glory: The Dog Chapel

June 10, 2015 — I don’t remember the day in my childhood when I discovered that “god” and “dog” are anadromes. Young enough not to know about the word “anadrome,” I assume. Still, I do remember how much fun it made church for a while after. Little did I know that a few decades later I’d walk into a church dedicated to the canine species.

The Dog Chapel in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, looks like your classic New England church—stark white with a pointy steeple that goes perfectly against hills covered in fiery autumn foliage. I was there on an drab, overcast spring day, but you know what I mean. There are a few tip-offs that this isn’t your average New England church.

First, it’s small. Like a little bit bigger than the square footage of a two-car garage. But, like they say, it’s not the size of your church. However, it’s the second thing that really catches your attention: The group of painted wooden sculptures in front of it. A man in a suit stands surrounded by dogs of various breeds outside the church like the analogy is alpha male and pack instead of shepherd and flock. Beside them, on a sign where a real church would have a Bible verse or a denunciation of any of a range of the more fun things in life, it says “All Creed, All Breeds, No Dogmas.”

It looked like a nice enough place. But it does have a dark side—its interior is covered in dead dogs.

I was on Dog Mountain, a property developed and built by folk artist Stephen Huneck. Next door was a renovated white barn that matched the church and which housed an art gallery and gift shop. As is the way with most of Huneck’s art, it was full of lots of dogs, but there was also a set of life-sized Siamese nuns. I don’t know. Artists just have to follow their muses wherever they go.

The Ohio-born Huneck created the Dog Chapel after emerging from a two-month-long coma brought on by a sudden case of acute respiratory distress syndrome. Instead of lights at the end of tunnels, his vision was a heaven full of dogs, because, you know, all dogs…

Dodging a few live dogs that were having a run of the property, we ducked into the church, which was divided into a foyer and an auditorium. The foyer was empty except for a sculpture of a wooden dog with wings. In the auditorium, six short pews were capped by dogs that faced the rear like obstinate ushers. At the front, instead of a pulpit, was what I’m going to have to call a choir of dogs, again of various breeds. On both sides were an impressive series of stained glass windows, dog-themed, of course.

This was a place for dog deity, its patron saint, Bernard, run by mastiffs instead of pontiffs, malamutes instead of martyrs, dog collars instead of clerical ones. I could go on all day. I had a borderline-decent dachshund/doxology one that I edited out.

But the most eye-catching part of the entire chapel were the walls, which looked like they had been papered with flayed piñata hides. They were covered with Post-Its and photos of beloved dogs, some long deceased and some only shortly so, all buried in back yards or deposited at veterinarian offices far, far away from this chapel. I don’t remember seeing whether anybody had slipped any other pets onto the walls or if that is the only form of sacrilege the Dog Chapel recognizes, but there were certainly a ton of dead dogs.

And Dog Chapel is the perfect place to remember them all.

Honestly, you don’t have to be a dog lover to love the dedication to a theme. To me, the only thing this place needs is a pet cemetery.

I was joking earlier about the place’s dark side. But it does have one. In January of 2010, at age 61, Huneck shot himself in the town of Littleton, New Hampshire after a deep bout of depression. I visited the Dog Chapel about three years later in April of 2013. His wife, Gwen Huneck, had been running Dog Mountain since his death. However, less than two months after my visit, she took her own life, as well.

They say that loving a pet can extend your life. And maybe, for Stephen and Gwen Huneck—and I mean this sincerely because dog knows I don’t want to end on that last paragraph—their love of dogs did exactly that. At least, it did for Dog Mountain, which is still around and open to the public today.