Anyone who has ever welcomed a dog into the home, knows just how quickly they move into your heart. But what happens when the time comes for our best friend to leave? Relatives and friends do not gather from across the globe to pay respects to our departed dog. There is no service or ceremony honoring the life of our best friend. Often times we are left to grieve in the comforts of home because there isn’t a physical place to share our loss with others. Or is there?
Nestled within rolling hills, nature trails and swimming ponds of northeast Vermont, Stephen Huneck created that very place. Built in the style of an 1820’s Vermont church, the Dog Chapel, atop Dog Mountain in St. Johnsbury, is open to “all creeds and all breeds” as noted on the welcome sign. The idea to build such a chapel came to Stephen while he was recovering from a life threatening illness. Combining his compassion for dogs and talent for art, the dog chapel became a three year labor of love, sparing no expense until it mirrored the vision in Stephen’s mind. And the people (and pups) came. From all corners of the country those seeking comfort over the loss of their dog, attach photos and any words or prayers they want to share on the remembrance wall. Now, after 10 years these photos have filled the entire chapel. “We thought about adding photos to the ceiling,” says Gwen Huneck, Stephen’s wife, “but we decided to overlap them. Photos will never be taken down.” This ritual of placing the photos on the wall and just knowing they are there among many others, has helped people to heal. And that’s what Stephen wanted.
Stephen’s love for dogs began at a very early age even though he didn’t have one as a child. After settling into a home in the country with college sweetheart, Gwen, they rescued Shirley, a Doberman pincher who “supposedly” had a host of behavioral issues. But they never surfaced in the Huneck household. Gwen says, “Shirley was a sweetheart and the perfect dog.” That’s because she finally found the perfect family. When Shirley was young, Gwen and Stephen detected a lump. They brought her to the vet who decided it was untreatable and hastily advised euthanasia. Despite the prognosis, they demanded a series of tests but the vet reiterated that the outcome was bleak. After more persistence, the vet finally agreed to test the lump and warned them both to be prepared for the worst. Stephen and Gwen were so worried they were going to lose their best friend. While waiting for the results over a holiday weekend, they created a life size wood carving of Shirley with angel wings on her back. They wanted something to memorialize their faithful companion and this seemed fitting. A couple days later, the vet called with results. Shirley’s tumor was benign and she lived another healthy eight years! Had it not been for this experience, the angel-winged dogs may have never come to life.
There was no limit to Stephen’s artistic creativity. He started out as an antique dealer and in his spare time, created art. He was discovered by a Madison Avenue dealer who fell in love with an angel wood carving Stephen had in the back of his truck. Right there on the spot the dealer paid a hefty price for the carving and that’s when things took off. Some of Stephen’s pieces are displayed in the Smithsonian Institute, the Dog Museum of America and the American Kennel Club. He was able to work in any medium—woods, paints, furniture, jewelry, sand casting—the list goes on. Just when he’d master one craft he was anxious to explore something new. Everyday he was inspired by breathtaking views of the mountains along with his dogs. He also loved listening to positive, upbeat music in the studio and avoided the use of heavy power tools which would drown out the sound.
Gwen states that he created each piece of art with passion and healing energy. “Stephen’s work is absolutely sincere. It is genuine and comes from the heart.” This is also why he had such success as a children’s book author. Sally Goes to the Beach
(Abrams, 2000) hit the New York Times children’s best-seller list and was one of a series of books starring his black Lab, Sally. His most recent book Even Bad Dogs Go to Heaven
is a follow up to his 2002 book, The Dog Chapel
, which illustrates the special bond between owner and dog even after the dog has passed. His dogs always kept him grounded and helped him maintain a childlike joy that was present in his writing. His stories are told in a humorous, uplifting way and his message is subtle, never preachy. Whether about friendship, the fun of learning new things or simply accepting people the way they are, Stephen’s messages continue to resonate with children and adults alike.
Sadly, Stephen passed away in 2010. His legacy lives on through the lives of those he touched and his compassionate spirit is very much alive in the art he created. Stephen always gave generously to people, animals and causes that were dear to him and Gwen says that he lived his life “genuinely treating others the way he would want to be treated.” She also shares a simple message about Stephen and how he strived to live each day: “Life for Stephen was about love, joy, compassion, empathy and enjoying yourself. And most importantly, having fun while you’re alive.” I bet if our dogs could talk, they’d say the very same thing.
The Dog Chapel and the Stephen Huneck Gallery at Dog Mountain is approximately three hours away from Boston and Hartford, Mass. They are open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. On October 10, 2010 they will be celebrating their annual fall festival honoring Stephen’s life and work. All are welcome. For more information on the Dog Chapel and the Stephen Huneck gallery please visit dogmt.com.