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Canine contemplation

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Old October 17th 07, 03:59 AM posted to rec.pets,rec.pets.dogs.misc,talk.religion.misc,talk.religion.newage
Steve Dufour
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Default Canine contemplation


Canine contemplation

October 16, 2007

By Andrea Billups - ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. - High on a mountaintop in this
rural town sits a small white chapel - for dogs.

The marquee outside greets visitors with the same warmth of a wagging
tail or a friendly bark: "Welcome. All creeds, all breeds. No dogmas

Photo Gallery: Vermont chapel welcomes all breeds

The 1820s-style white clapboard church, with a golden angel-winged dog
on its steeple, was built by American folk artist Stephen Huneck as a
stained-glass adorned sanctuary where grieving pet owners and animal
lovers could come to meditate and honor their four-legged friends.

On the walls of the church are thousands of touching handwritten
tributes to pets loved and lost, pinned along with photographs.

"She was an exceptional beagle girl," wrote the "parents" of Wiley.
"She was the angel the Lord sent to take care of us on Earth, and now
she is our angel in heaven."

And Brutus: "You came into my life a little too late and left a little
early. Lots of love, Mom."

In a hand-carved pew, with dog heads adorning the seats' ends, sits
Mr. Huneck, feeding treats to his three dogs. He is soft-spoken and
reflective as he takes in his unique creation, which has hosted
celebrities, including actress Sandra Bullock, and thousands of
visitors from around the world.

While his sculptures, handmade furniture and woodcut prints have been
exhibited in high-end galleries in such places as New York City, and
coveted by collectors worldwide, it is inside the dog chapel that Mr.
Huneck, 59, seems most content.

"The Greeks talked to their gods through scribes writing messages that
were thrown into a fire. The Jews have the Wailing Wall, where they
stick messages into the cracks," he explained. "That's what I have out
here. It's a way for people to communicate with God about their dog."

He pauses as an American Indian flute plays softly on the sound system
and a cool fall breeze filters inside the chapel's open doors.

"A lot of people thank me for this," he said of his chapel, which has
a Web site (www.dogmt.com) and is open seven days a week. "It makes me
feel really good."

A native of Ohio and graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art in
Boston, Mr. Huneck said he grew up in an abusive home. He left home as
a teenager and went to San Francisco, where the free-love era of the
'60s was in full tilt. Not fond of the drug culture there, he moved to
Vermont, where a home-schooling family took him in.

He drove a cab to put himself through college, where he graduated with
a degree in education and met his wife. He got into the art world
sideways, picking through trash for antiques and fixing them for
resale. His craftsmanship led people to suggest he should be an
artist. His first piece earned him $1,000 and caught the eye of an art
dealer in New York. His career took off.

Mr. Huneck said he had a vision to build the dog chapel after a near-
death experience. In 1994, his wife, Gwen, found him unconscious after
falling at their Vermont home. He was suffering from acute respiratory-
distress syndrome. He lapsed into a coma, and doctors feared brain
damage. His wife refused to accept the diagnosis and maintained a
round-the-clock bedside vigil, talking to him and willing him to get

"At one point, I stopped, I died," said Mr. Huneck, who was on a
respirator at the time. But he made it through the night.

He came out of the coma after about two weeks and, although he had a
breathing tube, he woke up immediately wanting to communicate. After
that, he stayed in a nursing home rehabilitation center, where he
learned to walk and take care of himself again at 45.

"I was determined to get out of the nursing home," he recalled.

Once back home and with a walker, his artistic drive returned.
Although weak, he sat at his drawing table and crafted his first wood
cut, a dog with an orb in its mouth with the saying "Life is a Ball."

"The fact that I was a dead man two months before, I was reaffirming
the value of life," he said of his inspiration.

From that, his wood-block prints featuring pups in whimsical moments

with witty sayings took off. Soon, he sold enough artifacts that he
could buy about 300 acres of pasture and forest, which he dubbed Dog

Tucked atop the hills of the bucolic Vermont countryside, Mr. Huneck
constructed a gallery where he sells his art, a workshop where he
plies his craft, and the chapel, doing most of the work on the
structure himself.

"I was obsessed with it," he said of the chapel, built from wood on
his property.

He was adamant in telling his wife that the project must go forward,
even though he knew she would not initially approve. "I had not much
money, and I also had to make a living on my art, so I spent nights
and weekends making it happen."

Two years later, in 2001, the chapel opened, with dog-lovers coming
from around the world to see his creation.

Mr. Huneck also hosts dog parties for about 500 pets and their owners
a couple of times a year on the property. And, yes, hot dogs are
served. "They completely know it's for them," he said of the fetes.

He also is the author of children's books. His first book, "Sally Goes
to the Beach," was a New York Times best-seller, as well as others.
His newest book, "Sally Gets a Job," is set to publish next fall.

Mr. Huneck plans to expand his chapel with an inner sanctum that
creates his vision of heaven, complete with a life-size angel
hologram, a dome featuring the view of earth from space and sound
effects. He is working to raise money for the upgrades.

"This is not just a place for people whose dogs have died," he said.
"I want people to bring their dogs up here when they are alive and sit
in the chapel and tell them how much they love them. ... Dogs know
this is a special place. And they teach us all so much. I've learned
so much from them about fairness, values, the simple things that
matter. I want people to know that dogs have souls."


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