Missouri's own Michelangelo Inspiration: Sam Butcher has created his own Sistine Chapel -- one in which biblical figures are replaced with children bearing the trademark teardrop eyes of his Precious Moments porcelain figurines.

October 04, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

CARTHAGE, Mo. -- It was as Sam Butcher gazed up at Michelangelo's frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that he hit on an inspiration.

He would build his own Sistine Chapel.

Butcher is the creator of Precious Moments, the sentimental porcelain figurines of teardrop-eyed children that have become one of the top collectibles in the world, sometimes outstripping Hummel figures in sales.

Precious Moments figurines made Butcher a millionaire, and he decided he wanted to use some of those millions to build something seemingly impractical, but beautiful: a chapel, like the Sistine, but with murals that featured Precious Moments characters.

He built his chapel and opened it to the public in 1989, here in middle America, just outside this town of 11,000 in the southwestern corner of Missouri. It has become one of the state's top tourist attractions, drawing more than 750,000 people a year. Many people stop in on their way to the country-music center of Branson, Mo.

"We hear from a lot of people, 'Our vacation was to Branson, but what we remember most is our time at the Precious Moments chapel,' " says Ted Easley, promotions manager for the Precious Moments Chapel.

What draws people, many of them collectors of Precious Moments figurines, is the interior of the chapel, which features 52 murals depicting scenes from Biblical stories. All the familiar characters, such as Moses, King David and Jesus and his disciples, are children with the familiar Precious Moments teardrop eyes.

The murals aren't merely cute to many of the visitors, who shuffle through the chapel speaking in hushed voices as guides explain the symbolism and stories on the walls and ceilings.

"I think he had to be inspired by God to paint all this," says JoAnn Stacy, visiting from Coweta, Okla. "He's a very compassionate painter and he shows it in his painting."

Butcher started out in the early 1960s attending an art school in Berkeley, Calif., but after he married and started a family he had to drop out to take a succession of odd jobs, including short-order cook and dishwasher at a coffee shop.

He and his wife started attending a local church in 1963 after the birth of their second child, and Butcher decided that he should find some way to combine a life of ministry with his art. He took a job as a staff artist for the International Child Evangelism Fellowship in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Over the years, Butcher drew cards for friends featuring the teardrop-eyed children, and in 1974, a friend persuaded him to design a line of greeting cards to sell at the International Christian Booksellers Convention. He was so overwhelmed with sales that competing exhibitors left their booths to help him write orders.

Four years later, Eugene Freedman, president of the collectible company, Enesco, saw one of Butcher's children in a poster and asked Butcher if he could commission a porcelain figure. Initially reluctant, Butcher relented and that year Enesco produced the first 21 Precious Moments figurines.

Twenty years later, the Precious Moments collection includes more than 1,400 figurines, according to company figures. One of the most popular, a wedding motif titled "May the Lord Bless You and Keep You," has topped more than a million wedding cakes.

Each year, between 25 and 40 new figurines are released and between 12 and 20 are retired, enhancing their collectible value.

It was after this incredible success that Butcher's dream of a chapel in the hills was born. In 1984, he was on a business trip in Arizona when he decided, instead of flying home to Michigan, to rent a car. He believed God would lead him to the spot for his chapel.

By 3 a.m. he was exhausted and decided to stop in Joplin, Mo. In the morning, he woke up and saw the rolling hills of the Ozarks. He knew he had found his spot. That day, he had a real-estate agent take him on a tour of available properties, and he bought 17 acres in Carthage.

Like Michelangelo, Butcher set out to paint the 1,400-square-foot ceiling of his chapel while reclining on a scaffold. But as he painted a scene of angels among clouds, he found the work grueling and painful; he grew discouraged and considered quitting his project. He prayed for strength and after he got back on the scaffolding, he decided to leave one angel incomplete as a reminder of God's intervention that night.

But it is the towering Hallelujah Square mural at the front of the chapel, where Michelangelo placed his disturbing and dark work of Judgment Day, that draws the most attention and is the crowd favorite. It features dozens of Precious Moments angels entering heaven, with two of them holding signs saying "Welcome to your Heavenly Home."

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