Precious Moments Park and Chapel
In 1985 the world's hottest figurine collectibles were Precious Moments. Their bulb-headed, anime-eyed, nearly mouthless children -- many portrayed as baby angels with stubby wings -- were in nearly every grandmother's curio cabinet. Founder and creator Samuel J. Butcher, a former janitor, was a newly-minted multi-millionaire.
Then God spoke to Sam Butcher. He told him to rent a car and find a spot where Sam could create a masterpiece for the Lord.
The spot turned out to be just outside of Carthage, Missouri, and the masterpiece -- inspired by the Sistine Chapel in Rome -- is the Precious Moments Chapel. Its interior has been painted by Butcher with biblical murals and frescoes -- not Michelangelo masterpieces, but cartoon art populated with bulb-headed Precious Moments children.
Sam spent four years painting the chapel, then opened it to the public. With money pouring in from his collectibles empire, he surrounded his chapel with acres of parklike land, a Precious Moments museum, a convention center, a performing "Fountain of Angels" that featured live musical acts, a "Wedding Island" where visitors could get married, and a mini-mall of Precious Moments gift shops. All of it was free.
The sands of time (and changes in public taste) eventually slowed the juggernaut that was Precious Moments. In 2007 most of the park's ancillary attractions were closed. But what remains is still free, and its centerpiece is still the Precious Moments Chapel.
Walking tours of the chapel leave the mini-mall every hour (Visiting the Precious Moments Chapel is a breeze compared to the Sistine Chapel). Groups stroll a cement pathway lined with waist-high baby angel statues, many of them dedicated to dead children. The guide tells the story behind Sam's labors: how he spent more than 500 hours on his back atop a 35-foot-high scaffold painting 75 baby angels on the ceiling. "Mr. Butcher," said our guide, "would deliberately tear most of the major seams in his clothing, leaving room enough to freely climb."
(The guide told us that the two most asked questions on Precious Moments tours are, "Where's Mrs. Butcher?" -- the Butchers are divorced and she lives out of state -- and, "What color is his dog?")
Our group gazed at the Precious Moments paintings, covering nearly every interior surface of the chapel, "over 5,000 square feet of fine art," said our guide. Two baby angels with flashlights portray the biblical passage, "And God said, 'Let there be light.'" Several baby angels, including two black angels, play basketball with the Earth. Many people, our guide said, have had religious experiences in this chapel based on collectible figurines. No babies cry ("They never do," said our guide).
The wall behind the altar is filled with Sam's crowning work, Hallelujah Square. It depicts a dead child arriving in heaven. Several baby angels hold signs reading, "Welcome To Your Heavenly Home." The sign with "Welcome" is held upside down, as cute children will sometimes do. Others in Hallelujah Square romp and frolic with adorable animals. In the center of the mural is a ministering Christ. He is the only adult depicted in the entire chapel.
Sam Butcher, like George Lucas, has gone back over time and altered his original masterpiece, adding Precious Moments versions of his mother, military personnel, and others who have died. Young people in our group were invited to sit next to the mural and "imagine yourself" as part of it. "This is so sad," said one, a cheerleader.
In a pew-filled back room, still part of the tour, there is a tribute to Sam's son, Philip, who died in a car crash. One wall is filled with a painting of Philip's bedroom. Above his empty bed, on puffy clouds, baby angels hold signs reading, "Welcome Home, Philip." Philip was 27 when he died, but nowhere in the room is he shown as an adult.
Other rooms display pictures of dead people, mostly children, who have been turned into Precious Moments caricatures. Their portraits are provided as a reference if you want to go back into the chapel to find them. Huge, leather-bound ledgers are filled with handwritten messages from visitors to dead friends and relatives.
Sam's personal tombstone stands outside the chapel, engraved, in part:
I trust that when I'm gone
Our visitors may find
Great comfort in the work of art
That I have left behind
Although Sam Butcher is still alive, you're unlikely to see him at Precious Moments Park. He has spent most of the 21st century living in Southeast Asia, where in 2006 he opened a boutique resort with the first year-round Christmas shop in the Philippines, and its own, smaller, Precious Moments Chapel.