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Good dogs

Chapel in Vermont fetes and feeds the faithful

Email|Print| Text size + By Rich Barlow
Globe Correspondent / October 3, 2004

ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. -- Most of the 100-plus guests visiting the chapel were on their best behavior. Since this was a barbecue, however, some engaged in less-than-reverent party shenanigans.

Oscar and Yogi wrestled on the floor between the pews. Scout nonchalantly passed wind in the foyer. Puppa, who's quite the looker, stood regally in the chapel and let others stare. Of course, being an Irish wolfhound, he looks down on most dogs.

The Dog Chapel is as much for the four-legged set as for us primates, an homage to the spiritual bond between people and pets. From the tiniest Jack Russell to the most mountainous St. Bernard, they joined their human owners for burgers and frankfurters (hot for humans, cool for canines) at the late-summer cookout. Three years after acclaimed wood carver and children's book author Stephen Huneck opened it, the chapel, with a winged Labrador atop its spire, has joined madras leaf canopies, winter-bleached ski hills, tree-fringed lakes, and Ben & Jerry's as a must-see tourist destination in Vermont. It has charmed kitsch-wary travel writers and animal lovers alike.

''It's pretty amazing. It's a lot of effort to go to for pets," said Cathy Anker, who timed a trip to Vermont from her home outside Toronto to make the barbecue, accompanied by her mother and Shadow, their golden retriever.

Huneck, 55, modeled the Dog Chapel on a typical circa 1820 Vermont church, spending about $200,000 out of his own pocket on everything from the sassafras floor to the kaleidoscope of stained glass. Instead of saints and sacred scenes, however, the windows show dogs swimming, licking an ice cream cone, being petted. The pew ends are carved dogs. Flute music lilts from a speaker, while a sign outside welcomes ''All Creeds, All Breeds. No Dogmas Allowed." The chapel, built in 1999, and Huneck's adjacent gallery look out from their hillside (Dog Mountain) onto a postcard scene of fenced fields and undulating forests.

I first saw this place and met Huneck the day before 9/11. In a reverse way, the terrorism rippled to this remote spot: Huneck says sales of his work have increased in the era of color-coded alerts.

''People find comfort in the things that are close to them," he said. ''They want their homes to be more uplifting. They'd rather smile than frown. . . . When things get the worst, we seem to sell the most art."

For all the chapel's whimsy, Huneck's idea to celebrate the human-dog connection arose out of near tragedy. Ten years ago, he almost died from a respiratory illness. He recuperated by walking the Vermont woods with his dogs for company. Today, he and his wife have three. Unfortunately, that does not include Sally, star of Huneck's popular children's books (''Sally Goes to the Mountains" [Harry N. Abrams, 2001], ''Sally Goes to the Beach" [Abrams, 2000], ''My Dog's Brain" [Viking, 1997], among others), who died this year.

Part of the chapel's draw undoubtedly is its creator's success as an artist. He is paid five-figure commissions for some of his work. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver were customers. Huneck has galleries in such places as Key West, Fla.; Kennebunkport, Maine; and on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. President Clinton, then in the doghouse himself after confessing to his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, dropped by the Vineyard gallery. According to Huneck, the president liked a particular woodcut print, depicting a dog licking himself and titled ''Because They Can."

Huneck has plans for another cookout next Sunday at the Dog Chapel, which is free to visitors (www.dogchapel.com). He has hosted these shindigs for several years, ever since he noticed dogs at one of his galleries sniffing the rear ends of his canine carvings. He decided to sponsor get-togethers for customers and their canine companions and found himself amazed at how well behaved the dogs were, ''like sophisticated New Yorkers at a party."

Huneck's professional popularity aside, the chapel touches a special nerve even in pet owners who have never heard of him. One reason is the foyer's Remembrance Wall, papered with visitors' photos of and notes to their deceased animals, including (bravely) an occasional cat.

''I'm totally going to cry," said a woman heading for the door after reading some of the postings. ''I need to go."

Even a cynic could understand her emotion after perusing a few memorials. One, in a child's scrawl, said simply, ''I like this place. I hope my kitty is happy in heaven."

Ranger's owner wrote of regret over time wasted in anger: ''I miss you. I'm sorry I was ever cross with you. We will be together again. And I will hold you again."

Rich Barlow can be reached at rbarlow.81@alum.dartmouth.org.

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