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Stuart's Bold New Beacon
From disaster, a new attraction arises
By Chuck Offenburger

Farm Bureau’s - Family Living

The town of Stuart in west-central Iowa is getting its beacon back.

As October ended, the sidewalls of a 27-ton dome were being lifted up atop the structure that is now going by the name of the “Community Cultural Center,” but which most in the community still refer to as “the church.”

Until August 1995, it was historic All Saints Catholic Church, once voted “most beautiful church in Iowa ” by readers of the Des Moines Register. Then an arsonist torched it, gutting the interior. The dome crashed into the basement, the limestone block sidewalls were left standing as sad, smoldering ruins.

The parish council of All Saints, with direction from the Catholic Diocese of Des Moines, soon built a new church building on the east edge of town.

But the community was without its landmark. The 90-foot-high dome, which had been so apparent to people in the 21,000 vehicles passing the community each day on Interstate Highway 80, was gone.

However, a heroic community effort took root.

“After the fire, when it began looking like the Catholic Diocese was not going to restore All Saints and instead build the new church, my late mother Irene Doherty started insisting that, ‘Something has to be done, something has to be done!’” said Dick Doherty, of Stuart. “A group of us started meeting once a week at her house—once a week for five years—to discuss plans about what we could possibly do.”

The Dohertys, Vitzthums, Smulls and others turned that effort into the Project Restore Foundation, and Dick Doherty has served ever since as its president. First they bought the ruins and property from the diocese for $8,700.

Then they went on a campaign that has raised $2.5 million to rebuild and renovate the structure as a performing arts hall, a convention center and a “wedding destination” capable of hosting big weddings and receptions. They dream of having their own Stuart concert series, with a varied line-up of professional and amateur entertainers. There will be up to 345 seats available for stage performances, and up to 192 for banquets. Their business plan projects at least 10,000 people per year attending events in the facility, and its economic impact on the area is expected to grow from about $2 million per year.

Project Restore is working with architects Kirk Blunk and Jeff Wagner of HLKB Architecture in Des Moines , a firm known for its work on historic buildings.

“We hope to open in the fall of 2009, with several days of special events,” said Doherty, now 63, who is retired from a management position at the Principal Financial Group in Des Moines . “Interestingly, our reconstruction has been running just about one century later from the original construction. They started building All Saints in 1908 and dedicated it in 1910.”

What made it such an attraction was its grand scale and unusual design.

The church always seemed oversized for “Home of 1,700 Good Eggs and a Few Stinkers,” as Stuart has long billed itself. But the congregation came from around the area, too. More remarkable was the rare Byzantine architectural style that the original designers, who were from Boston , Mass. , decided to use. The Stuart church was “loosely modeled after St. Marks’s in Venice , Italy ,” the Project Restore brochure reports. “The magnificent interior was created in the Italian Baroque tradition. Four hand-painted frescoes adorned the arched ceilings. The altars were of Italian marble, and the windows were ornate stained glass, created in the renowned Meyer Studios in Munich , Germany .”

Yes, it was that grand.

Charles Willard of Des Moines did not think so. He hated Catholicism, he said later in his trial, where he admitted lighting the fires on Aug. 22, 1995, that consumed the church building. It was a senseless hate crime that stupefied nearly everyone in Iowa , Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Willard was sentenced to 25 years in prison, served about a dozen years and was released last June. The freeing of Willard, who is now 73, surprised most in Stuart, said Doherty. “We hope he’s no longer a threat, but our law enforcement people here are carrying his photo, and we’ve briefed the construction workers about him,” he said.

Doherty said during the clean-up and reconstruction, there have been three key moments so far.

One was in 2002-2003 when they re-opened what is now known as “Historic All Saints Chapel” on the northwest corner of the building and the former sacristy on the southwest corner. The chapel, which was originally used for smaller masses and individual prayer, is now available for small weddings and other gatherings. The former sacristy, where priests and acolytes would robe before mass, is now used as a presentation center and tour starting point.

Then in November 2007, voters in Stuart gave 63 percent approval to the issuance of $1.7 million in municipal bonds to help pay for the reconstruction. That has been pooled with an earlier $545,000 grant from the Vision Iowa Program. And USDA Rural Development has recently announced $400,000 in grants and loans to Stuart entities to facilitate the project.

The other moment that has stirred local people was the construction during this September and October of the 33-foot-high sidewalls of the dome, built in full public view on a platform right at the base of the building. The sidewalls, 34 feet in diameter, were to be lifted atop the structure in late October. The actual dome top will likely be added in December. A composition of fiberglass, concrete and steel will then be applied to it to replicate the original appearance.



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