The Des Moines Register
August 22, 1996
Page 6M

All of Iowa Will Be Watching


By Heather Wiese, Register Staff Writer

STUART, IA -- The Catholic congregation is at odds over what to do with the Stuart church, damaged by arson a year ago today.

The smoke has cleared. The ashes have settled. But a year later, the congregation of the All Saints Catholic Church in Stuart remains divided.

Today it will have been 12 months since Charles Willard pushed a shopping cart of gasoline through the 1908 landmark and dropped a match. Sentenced to 50 years in prison, Willard is no longer a threat to the Catholic community, but his criminal act did not just nearly destroy a church. It split a town.

Countless meetings, endless conversations and two surveys discussing whether All Saints should be restored or demolished have engulfed the congregation.

One side doesn't believe it's economically feasible to restore the old church. Preliminary estimates put a 5.5 million price tag on restoration. With only a 3.9 million insurance settlement, the church would slip into debt. They believe the sensible choice is to build a new church -- a building that would accommodate a growing community and provide ample parking and accessibility for the disabled.

The other side wants the original church back. Initial estimates were inflated, they say. Also, the church was more than just a place of worship. It was a community’s history, its heritage.

The Rev. Richard Bergman has been performing Mass in an old wooden Christian church adjacent to All Saints. It seats 100 people, and the place is packed every Sunday. But Bergman says he isn't holding his breath for a new location.

Attempting to explore their options, 60 people from both sides of the issue visited Omaha on Tuesday to look at restored and new churches there. But Bergman has been down this road before. The church he served prior to coming to Stuart had burned down a few years before he went there. "It took three years between the rebuilding and the fire," he said.

In February, the All Saints parish council voted unanimously to raze the and rebuild at a new location.

"We accepted the cost value of the building," Bergman said. "The idea was to build a new church. Some people interpret that to mean using all of the old walls."

One of those people is Richard Doherty. A member of Project Restore, a group dedicated to salvaging the original building, Doherty said the organization is the only reason "the walls are still standing on the church."

The group has been running local radio ads, calling for the support of the community.

"If the parish council and the parish trustees are going to listen to what the people want, they will restore the church," Doherty said.

The group has independently raised nearly $60,000 for restoration and has attracted the attention of an area engineer who says he can restore All Saints for under $3 million.

Doherty says Project Restore and other parish members who would like to see the church rebuilt see All Saints as part of their "cultural heritage."

"You're taking away our history. If you did that to any other group, people would be up in arms," he said.

In the meantime, there is a coldness between some All Saints members on Sundays, Doherty said. "We've tried to keep personalities out of it and concentrate on the restoration," he added.

The bishop of the Des Moines Diocese will have the final say. But if All Saints is demolished, Doherty said, "all of Iowa will be watching."

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