Precious Moments Park and Chapel
Plot the population center of the United States from the 1790 census through 1990. It makes a line heading right toward Carthage, MO. And Precious Moments is why. Precious Moments Chapel is what it is all about. It's what we have come to. It is the metaphorical center of the US population.
Actually, Precious Moments was built in 1989, but what it has accomplished since then is staggering. Precious Moments figurines, for those of you who don't own any of the number-one collectible in the United States, are small porcelain bisque figurines of big-eyed children. Many of the figurines depict children with robes and halos: dead baby angels. To say thank you for their incredible popularity, creator Samuel Butcher created the chapel, a free attraction.
The crowded Precious Moments complex also houses a museum, a convention center, a series of gift shops. But the centerpiece is his life-sized homage to the Sistine Chapel -- decorated with cartoon murals and frescoes interpreting the Bible using Precious Moments characters.
Tour groups proceed from the gift shop mall up a cement walk, lined with waist-high baby angel statues, to the heavy carved doors of the Precious Moments Chapel.
The guide tells the story behind Butcher's labors, and helps the crowd interpret each work of art. As the inner doors open, people gasp -- struck by a whoof of air conditioning surging out into the summer heat.
People reverently look up at magical scenes covering nearly every surface. Scenes from Genesis -- two baby angels with flash lights illustrate "And God said let there be Light." And god created Earth -- several dead baby angels, including one of two black angels, play basketball with the earth.
At the back wall of the Chapel is its defining mural, Hallelujah Square. It depicts a new child being welcomed to heaven by Timmy Angel. Other children angels hold signs saying "Welcome To Your Heavenly Home." The sign with "Welcome" written on it is held wrong side up, as cute children will sometimes do. Others in Hallelujah Square romp and frolic. In the exact center of the mural is a ministering Christ. He is the only adult depicted in the chapel.
The effect of the work (including a Michelangelo-like painted ceiling) on the assembled crowd is haunting. No babies cry ("They never do," says our guide.) Adults looking at the cartoons are stock still.
One mixed-media mural shows "The Second Coming," in which painted clouds part and a painted Jesus appears to a collection of Precious Moments porcelain miniatures, some driving tiny cars.
In a pew-filled back room -- still part of the tour -- past stained glass Precious Moments windows, is a shivering tribute to Butcher's son, Philip, who was killed by a drunk driver. On the wall is a large painting of Philip's bedroom when he was a child, featuring Philip surrounded by his siblings. Above them on puffy clouds, baby angels hold signs saying "Welcome Home, Philip." Philip was 30 when he died, but nowhere in the room is he shown as an adult.
Timmy, the dead child angel who is the chapel's mascot, wanders the grounds and poses for photos. Visitors hold their living babies next to Timmy, finding nothing wrong with any of it.
The two most asked questions on Precious Moments tours: "Where's Mrs. Butcher?" (The Butchers are divorced and she lives out of state) and "What Color Is His Dog?"
Oct. 2012: Chapel and Visitors Center is open, but the Museum is closed for renovations, reopening summer 2013.