About the Book
When the author’s beloved dog is diagnosed with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, her first instinct is to fight for her dog’s life; to do everything possible to bring the symptoms of this neurologically debilitating condition under control. But treatments fail, symptoms worsen, and she is faced with many emotionally complicated questions: What is the measure of a dog’s life? What do we owe to those whose lives we both cherish and steward? Does saving a life always mean preserving it, or does it sometimes mean letting go? As the author grapples with these questions and their implications, she becomes a regular visitor at the Dog Chapel in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Spending long hours in the tiny church reading through the layers of notes and letters to dogs much loved and missed posted on its walls by other visitors, she begins to piece together the answers to these questions. A story of unconditional love and devotion, Dog Church is also a story of finding comfort in faith and the ways in which the emotional threads of love and grief can bind complete strangers together for brief moments in time in ways that are ultimately life-changing.
For Readers and Book Clubs:
“Touching the cord that runs between events that shape us and our relationships with dogs and infused with a sense of marvel at the true and boundless love that they bestow upon us, Dog Church explores the profound sense of loss with which we must contend when a beloved dog passes and the solace to be found in the joy of recalling a relationship which has made us the better for it.” — Larry Levin, New York Times bestselling author of Oogy: The Dog Only a Family Could Love
“Written with astounding grace and tenderness, Gail Gilmore’s Dog Church is a powerful meditation on what it means to be saved by a dog, and what it takes to return that gift in the most trying times. A beautiful testament to the sacred, healing, and transformative bond between human and canine, Dog Church invites us to find peace in heartbreak and faith in the hereafter, and to look within at our own endless capacity for devotion and for love.” – Rita Zoey Chin, author, Let the Tornado Come
I become a congregant of the Dog Chapel on the most ordinary of days. Driving west on Route 2, on the outskirts of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, I’m headed to my favorite Northeast Kingdom shoe store. It carries a surprising array of up-scale brands for these parts, and I love shopping there. No hassle, no pressure, just gorgeous shoes and the smell of brand new leather—the perfect place in which to spend a mindless hour or two on a Saturday afternoon.
Up ahead on the right, just beyond the big red Farmer’s Daughter Gift Barn, I see the sign for the Dog Chapel. This is not the first time I’ve driven this stretch of Route 2, not the first time I’ve noticed the unusual sign with the life-size dog walker and pack of leashed dogs poised atop a tall granite base, an arrow beneath the words “Dog Chapel” pointing the way up a dirt road. I’ve always been curious about the Dog Chapel, but for whatever reason have never taken the time to visit. Next time, I invariably tell myself. Definitely next time.
And now, on this Saturday afternoon, I find myself inexplicably drawn to the sign, curious about what lies in the direction of the pointing arrow. What is this place? Could it actually be a chapel for dogs? Unlikely, I think, but if it is, who created it—and why? The sudden need to know the answers to these questions is absolute and overwhelming, and I pull off the main road to investigate.
I drive slowly up the longer and bumpier than expected dirt road, pull into a small unpaved parking lot, and get out of the car. Walking across the expansive lawn toward the chapel, I pass a small pond and a Colonial-style white building with a sign that reads “Gallery.” This, I soon learn, is the gallery of artist and author Stephen Huneck, who considers the Dog Chapel, meant to celebrate the unbreakable bonds between dogs and the people who love them, his most significant piece of work.
I don’t know what I’d expected, but when the Dog Chapel comes into view I’m astonished by what I see. The chapel, about the size of a one-room-schoolhouse, looks exactly like a nineteenth-century New England village church, right down to its white clapboards and high steeple. But when I take a closer look at the steeple, it’s clear that the similarity to a traditional village church ends there. On top of this steeple, where I expect to see a cross, there’s instead a carving—a gilded, winged Labrador retriever poised as if in flight toward heaven.
The doors to the Dog Chapel are open, the invitation obvious. As I approach the entrance, the sign near the steps makes me smile: “Welcome. All creeds, all breeds, no dogmas allowed.” Good words to live by. For a moment, I idealistically envision what the world might look like if this sign, its words translated into thousands of languages, were posted outside every place of worship, all across the planet. A recording of what sounds like Native American flute music, audible from outside the chapel, redirects my focus from visions of religious peace, harmony, and pluralism back to the present. The notes of the music are ethereal and haunting, and I follow them into the chapel.
Inside, I immediately notice a stack of brochures and a pile of colored index cards placed neatly on a long wooden table in the chapel’s vestibule. I open a brochure and glance through it quickly. It recounts the history of the Dog Chapel, along with why it came into being, and provides a brief bio of Stephen Huneck. I slip one into my shoulder bag.
As I turn my full attention to the space around me, I realize that the walls are covered with randomly placed drawings, photographs, index cards, and post-its, creating a collage of vivid and overlapping color. When I approach the wall for a closer look, what I see amazes me. On every one of those index cards and post-its is a hand-written message for a deceased pet, left by a visitor to the chapel.