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Remember The Canines At Dog Mountain In Vermont

The carving 'Flying Sally' inside the chapel dedicated to dogs at St. Johnsbury, Vt.

By Laura Claverie For The Dallas Morning News

ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. – The gravel road leading to the top of Dog Mountain, on the outskirts of St. Johnsbury, is bumpy and crooked. It isn’t a place you’d expect to find a popular museum and elegant chapel, both sanctuaries for dog lovers.

But the sign at the top of the mountain says it all: “Welcome. All Creeds, All Breeds. No dogmas allowed.” It’s here that nationally known artist Stephen Huneck has built a small museum featuring his whimsical artwork, almost all featuring dogs he has loved, and a chapel to honor the spiritual bond between man and dog.The gallery, built in 1998, has attracted fans of Huneck’s work. Serious art collectors buy Huneck’s original works. Avid dog lovers and casual collectors browse and often purchase his limited-edition prints, wooden sculptures, funky furniture and children’s books.

But it’s the crisp white chapel on a grassy knoll nearby that tugs at the hearts of dog lovers from throughout the world, a fact that has taken Huneck by surprise.

Since its opening in 2000, more than 100,000 pet owners have visited the chapel and paid their respects to the dogs (and a few cats) that were important in their lives.

Most tack love notes to their pets on the chapel’s walls. In fact, thousands of tenderly written letters on colorful squares of paper, along with photos of beloved canines and their families, form a floor-to-ceiling patchwork memorial to the four-legged friends. Some tributes are poetic, some humorous, all heartfelt.

“The soul knows no species, nor does love,” says one note.

“Bugle the Beagle was my best friend when I was 3. I’m 61 and still miss him,” writes another.

“Toby, we miss your fur balls,” and “Allie is the greatest 12 pounds of furry love,” say others.

Huneck, whose dog paintings and sculptures are showcased in the Smithsonian Institution, the Dog Museum of America, the Southeast Guide Dog School of Florida and other prominent museums and galleries, conceived the idea of the chapel after his near-death in 1995 from adult respiratory distress syndrome, a condition that left him in a coma for nearly two months.

He was given little hope for survival. During his long recovery, he says he received a message out of nowhere telling him to build a dog chapel.

“I thought I was going crazy,” he says. “I didn’t have the time or the money to do something like this. But I kept hearing the words, ‘build a dog chapel.’ It wouldn’t let go. I knew I had to do it. I became obsessed with the idea.”

He designed the small church and over a three-year period almost single-handedly built a handsome 1820s New England-style chapel. All of the wood came from trees on his 150-acre Dog Mountain homestead. Colorful stained-glass windows, most of them depicting Labrador retrievers, were designed and created by Huneck, as were the pews and statues, all depicting dogs from his past. The towering steeple is topped with a gold-leaf-covered Lab with wings, presumably flying to doggy heaven.

“I never dreamed that the chapel would attract the worldwide attention it has. People come from all over,” Huneck says. “Each day, I receive notes from dog lovers, thanking me for building them a chapel where they can grieve their lost pets. It’s a little overwhelming at times.”

Outside the chapel, a teary-eyed young couple sits in the grass, arms around each other, obviously mourning the loss of their dog. Not far away, 12-year-old Tanner from nearby St. Albans happily runs through the grounds with his black standard poodle, Daisy.

“She’s a good dog, but not real bright,” he says, rolling his eyes and twirling his index finger in the air.

“Dogs have souls, as do humans. The two connect on a deep level,” says Huneck. “The chapel isn’t just for the dogs we’ve loved and lost, but for the ones who are alive. I tell people, ‘Live in the moment with your dog. Celebrate them while they are here on earth!’ ”

For that reason, there are always treats on hand for four-legged visitors. Dogs of all breeds and their masters wander through the museum and chapel or run freely in the manicured acres.

Dog Mountain calls them all.

Laura Claverie, a freelance writer in Louisiana, left a note on the chapel’s wall to Pebbles, her beloved rescue beagle that died in 2004 at age 15. She still misses that dog.

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