Find peace, serenity and more at Precious Moments
They come from far and wide — grandparents both young and old with children in tow; young couples with babies in strollers; small clubs and large groups. Even husbands stand, mouths agape, pointing in awe of the unexpected beauty which surrounds them.
The destination is Precious Moments Chapel in Carthage. For many travelers, it’s a vacation stop, but for others, it is a sort of pilgrimage to a place offering peace in an impressive setting. While the grounds surrounding the chapel are tranquil, it’s usually through the painted imagery of renowned artist Sam Butcher that hearts are touched.
Sam, 82, is the creator of Precious Moments. From soulful teardrop-eyed figurines to the inspiring chapel in southwest Missouri, his handiwork is recognizable worldwide. Since the release of his first figurine in 1978 titled “Love One Another,” the artist’s creations have been in demand by collectors for many reasons and occasions. Even the Precious Moments iconic large eyes are copyrighted.
“My daughter, Beth, collected Precious Moments when she was in high school,” says Velma Goertzen of Kansas. “She was killed by a drunk driver in 1985. Soon after, my son and his wife went through Carthage and stopped to see what Precious Moments was all about. He came home and said, ‘Mom, you’ve got to go.’ ”
Velma did and still does twice a year, once for the annual collectors’ reunion and again at Christmastime.
“There’s an angel by the gate in Mr. Butcher’s chapel mural that holds a pink rose,” recalls Velma, noting she has her daughter’s Precious Moments collection and adds pieces to it as a figurine brings back a special memory for her. “In my mind’s eye, that angel is my Beth. For me, the chapel offers peace as well as a beautiful place to remember.”
When the artist moved his family from Michigan to Carthage in the mid-1980s, son Jon recalls it being similar to a Bible story.
“It was a bit like Noah and his sons building an ark in the middle of the desert,” says Jon. “Nobody knew what he was doing. He was trying to explain it and people were like, ‘Oh, a Sistine Chapel in Carthage, that’s interesting.’ ”
Soon a 9,000-square-foot chapel building emerged from the rural landscape and Sam began painting the inside walls.
The dream for Precious Moments Chapel was born while Sam was driving home from a business trip. As he drove back home to Michigan, he stopped in Missouri overnight and found the 33 acres which is now home to the chapel, museum, gift shop and more. According to Jon — one of Sam’s seven children — it took his dad three years working 10-hour days seven days a week to complete for opening what is often described as “America’s Sistine Chapel.”
The chapel was opened in 1989 and according to his son has been the stop of comfort and inspiration for millions of people.
While he studied art in college, it wasn’t until his late 30s that Sam got his first official job as an artist working as an illustrator for Christian Evangelism Fellowship magazine making $75 a week. Not long after he started drawing Precious Moments figures for a greeting card line with best friend and then-business partner, Bill Biel. His work caught the eye of Eugene Friedman, president of Enesco Imports of Chicago, who envisioned Sam’s sweet-eyed children in 3D figures and more. The rest is collectible history.
“The Precious Moments collection is Dad’s greatest legacy from a business perspective,” says Jon. “From an artistic perspective, I’d say Precious Moments Chapel is his biggest legacy.”
Today the Precious Moments line includes thousands of designs, some retired and others created over and over again. Collectors reach around the globe and seem to have one common thread, according to Mishell Hoover, vice-president of the Precious Moments Foundation. “They fall in love with a figurine that reminds them of a snapshot or milestone in their life.”
Mishell, who has worked at Precious Moments for 32 of its 40-plus years, says she feels Sam’s figures capture what people would often like to say but can’t find words for.
“Since the beginning, his art has showcased loving, caring and sharing,” says Mishell. “I think that love is the constant common denominator — and something we can all use more of these days.”
Just past the foyer of the Italianate stucco chapel structure, double doors open to the tall chapel walls lined with art painted by Sam. The front wall is host to the chapel’s largest mural, which is the 40-feet high and 20-feet wide aptly named “Hallelujah Square.” It seems to sum up what Sam feels heaven will be like: cheerful, loving, beautiful and welcoming. Mothers hug children, angels welcome newcomers and friends play happily. Jesus is found in the center, encompassed by children. The ceiling is covered by fluffy white clouds, azure sky and dozens of angels. Surrounding walls as well as side galleries display murals detailing Biblical stories as well as stained glass windows designed by the artist.
Sam doesn’t consider any of his artwork finished until adding his signature to a painting. The only complete mural in the chapel is “Hallelujah Square”, which bears the artist’s signature in the bottom right hand corner.
A smaller chapel located off of the main hall was created in remembrance of Sam’s son, Philip, who was killed in a car accident in 1991. Guests are invited to sign one of the remembrance books located in the chapel in honor of their loved ones, if they desire.
“This place just seems to hug you when you need it most,” Mishell says of the Precious Moments Chapel and its halls of art and family history. “There’s not a day I don’t come into the chapel and see something different.”
Of Sam’s children, daughter, Deb, and son, Don, seem to have caught the artistic bug, helping design new figures for collectors both old and new to enjoy.
There is no charge to tour the chapel or grounds, but donations are accepted. The sale of gift shop items and donations are what keeps the nonprofit open for everyone to enjoy.
A handwritten entry in a chapel memory book sums up the feeling of being at Precious Moments perfectly.
“My mom and dad absolutely loved Precious Moments and many times begged me to come here with them. Three years ago, my dad passed away and my mom, who is 87, can no longer travel. My daughter-in-law brought me this day,” notes the visitor. “I am simply in awe, Dad.”
Precious Moments Chapel, gift shop and grounds are open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Winter hours: Nov. 19 through Dec. 31, Sunday through Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Precious Moments is located at 4321 Chapel Road in Carthage. For more information, call 800-543-7975 or go to www.preciousmomentschapel.org.
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