Carthage, Missouri, is the home of figurines that are famous around the world for their uplifting messages of caring and hope.
By Pamela Selbert
Years ago in a gift shop, when I first saw Precious Moments figurines “” those little waiflike porcelain children with oversized heads and teardrop-shaped eyes “” I found them so adorable, I bought two. They could have been portraits of my son as a toddler, with their big soulful eyes and wistful expressions.
Many people who acquire the figurines are downright passionate about them. They’re so involved that thousands of collectors “” and non-collectors, too “” visit the figurine headquarters in Carthage, Missouri. The fans arrive from all over the country on pilgrimages of sorts. Pilgrimage is the right word, for the place has its very own chapel.
Each little porcelain bisque statue has been given a Biblical or inspirational message, such as “Love One Another,” “You Lift My Spirits,” and “Everything’s Better With a Friend,” among many others. And the statues commemorate all sorts of occasions, occupations, and Christian sentiments. Thus, it isn’t surprising that the focal point of the complex is the Precious Moments Chapel, reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, which was its inspiration. But the figures portraying Biblical verses are nearly all children (just a few adults) with mournful teardrop eyes.
Those who already have visited Precious Moments Park know that the chapel was but one of many attractions. Up until January 1, 2007, Victorian Wedding Island, with a historic church and mansion surrounded by a 40-acre lake, was the site of more than 150 weddings each year. But it is no longer in operation. The Fountain of Angels, a choreographed water and music attraction, with bronze Precious Moments figures; the Gallery; an RV park; and Souper Sam’s restaurant, are now closed as well.
The closings were announced on the Precious Moments Web site, with diminished attendance given as the reason. However, the Chapel, which opened in 1989, remains in operation “” and it’s the main attraction, anyway. In addition, those who tour the complex still will find beautiful gardens and a welcoming visitors center, which resembles a quaint antique village and includes an enormous gift shop.
I learned that the weekend we’d chosen for our visit would coincide with an appearance and figurine signing by Precious Moments creator Sam Butcher. During our visit I was privileged to have a 45-minute chat with the artist.
Butcher is a charming man with smiling blue eyes that crinkle at the corners, and buzz-cut gray hair. He’s eager to talk, soft-spoken, and self-effacing. He said his purpose in creating the Precious Moments figures is to “get across a message of loving, caring, and sharing.”
Butcher entered the world on New Year’s Day 1939. He said he grew up in a dysfunctional family, but knew from an early age that he had artistic talent. However, there was no money for art supplies for the child considered “different.” So he scoured area dumps in search of paper and other drawing materials, and spent long, lonely hours making up and illustrating stories.
When Butcher was 10 years old, his family moved to California, where art teachers at the school he attended took notice of his ability and encouraged him to continue. Over his father’s objections, he finished high school, and accepted a scholarship to the College of Arts and Crafts in Berkeley. However, by the time he was 23, he and his wife, Katie, had a son, and he was obliged to leave school to support them. A dozen years later, the family included seven children, and Butcher was working as a dishwasher, fry cook, janitor “” anything to pay the rent, though all the while continuing to paint.
After Butcher and his family began attending church and studying the Bible, his art took a new direction as he began to combine painting with a Christian ministry. Thus he started drawing greeting cards for friends featuring the doe-eyed children that would make him famous.
In 1974 Butcher attended a Christian trade show to sell the greeting cards. Eugene Freedman, founder of Enesco, a porcelain bisque firm in Itasca, Illinois, saw the cards and realized their potential for a figurine line.
Butcher hesitated at first, he said, afraid his artwork would lose its spiritual message. But after he saw the first figurine, “Love One Another,” he knew it wouldn’t. He agreed to license his art to Enesco. (Today Enesco is no longer a licensee, and distribution is now done at the center. The little statues, as they have always been, are made abroad, currently in China.)
Butcher won numerous awards in the ensuing years, and I was told that his figurines are the number-one collectible in the United States and elsewhere.
A visit to the Sistine Chapel in Rome in 1985 inspired Butcher to use his talent to build a place where people could feel God’s presence, he said. Then, on a trip from California to Michigan he drove through southwest Missouri and discovered the site where the chapel would be built. He purchased 17 acres “” hundreds more have been added over the years “” and began work on the Ravenna-style chapel. It was, he says, his way of expressing his thankfulness for the blessings he has received throughout his life.
Thousands of visitors have toured the chapel since then. When it first opened, however, Butcher expected no more than 10 visitors at a time, so only 10 parking spaces were provided.
Butcher created everything in the chapel, including 30 Gothic-shaped stained-glass windows, some with more than 1,200 pieces, and 84 murals. He painted the 1,400-square-foot ceiling not unlike Michelangelo, lying on his back on a scaffold, working up to 24 hours at a stretch.
Murals depict the Old Testament of the Bible on the east wall of the chapel, and the New Testament on the west, with circular paintings above and rectangular ones below. Among the Old Testament murals, populated by the little teardrop-eyed characters, are Adam and Eve, Daniel in the lions’ den, Jonah and the whale, and Moses as a baby in the Nile River. New Testament murals represent the life of Christ from His birth to the Crucifixion and Resurrection; others depict Jesus’ parables such as the Prodigal Son, Lost Sheep, and Good Samaritan.
Twenty-minute narrated tours of the chapel are available daily at 9:10 a.m., and then every hour on the hour until 5:00 p.m. The chapel is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
Butcher has created more than 2,000 figurine designs, and a woman I met at the park the day we visited said she had more than 1,200 different ones. They appeal to collectors, because they think they’re adorable. And when I asked Butcher why nearly all the Precious Moments figures are children, he thought for a minute, then said with a wistful smile, “I think it’s a way to make up for my own lost childhood.”
Precious Moments Park
4105 Chapel Road
Carthage, MO 64836
The chapel, gift shop, and Royal Delights eatery are open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. in autumn, winter, and spring, and from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in summer (May 29 through September 3). The park is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Admission is free, although donations are accepted.
Special events at the park include Precious Customer Appreciation nights, four of which will be held in 2007, and a Family Reunion event in October. For details, visit the Web site or call one of the numbers above.