Reprinted with permission of the Omaha World-Herald

Fire Fuels A Debate

Omaha World-Herald - Saturday, January 25, 1997
Living/Religion Section

Controversy rages between church officials and parishioners in tiny Stuart, Iowa, where a historic but fire-damaged church awaits its fate.

By Rainbow Rowell
World Herald Staff Writer

Stuart, Iowa -- The ashes have not settled at All Saints Catholic Church. Ravaged by fire, its thick stone walls still stand. They're dirty and singed and smoky, but they're sound.

And that's enough to keep some parishioners fighting. One group, called Project Restore, refuses to accept the decision to build a new building.

Long after the parish council and the diocese ruled restoration too expensive, they insist with passion -- and stacks of information -- that it can be done.

"We're not giving up." said Dick Doherty, one of about 25 Project Restore members. "That property could be sold tomorrow ...and we wouldn't call it a done deal."

The group says the Des Moines diocese and the Rev. Richard Bergman, the former Stuart pastor, never considered restoration, forced the idea of a new building onto the parish council and made ordinary parishioners too scared to object.

On Aug. 22, 1995, fire -- fueled by 25 gallons of gasoline and one man's hatred -- hollowed All Saints Catholic Church.

Charles Willard had noticed the stone church while driving on Interstate 80. Like many others, he was lured into Stuart by the building's impressive dome, struck by its beauty.

Driven by his hatred of the Catholic Church, Willard cased the building, guessing how much gasoline it might take to destroy it and calmly wondering whether a stone church would burn.

He chose Stuart, the Des Moines man bragged to reporters after the fire, because he wanted to strike out at the "the heart and soul of that little town ...the heart and soul of Catholic Iowa."

The heart and soul. That's exactly where the fire hit the Stuart parish and its 185 families.

The church was the most beautiful building in Stuart, parishioners said. Even non-Catholics showed it off to visitors. The church would be so packed with non-Catholics on Christmas Eve, Doherty said, that many of the Catholics would try to catch Mass the next day.

The Byzantine-style church, modeled after St. Mark's Church in Venice, Italy, made ordinary life seem sacred, said Joan Gayle Glenn of Project Restore.

"I don't think there's a girl in this community," Ms. Glenn said, "who hasn't dreamed of walking down that aisle."

Ms. Glenn, like many members of Project Restore, said she just assumed the church would be restored. It soon was clear, she said, that the parish council and Bergman had other ideas.

A survey was taken to see what the parish wanted to do next. The survey was passed out on a day so cold that many people stayed home. Ms. Glen said. Worse, she said, the survey clearly was slanted toward rebuilding.

By March, Bergman had announced that restoration would be too expensive -- about $5.5 million. The parish had received only $3.9 million from its insurance settlement.

About that time, Project Restore got organized. While the parish worked with the Des Moines diocese on plans for a new church, Project Restore met every Sunday to stop those plans.

They have attended every open church meeting, paid for independent surveys and used newspaper and radio advertising to argue their position. They have held town meetings to discuss other alternatives. They even have a Project Restore website, featuring pictures of the church before, during and after the fire. Their fight is reminiscent of a struggle in Geneva, Neb., last year. St. Joseph Catholic Church was closed in October because it was falling apart. Some parishioners fought the idea, yet plans are moving ahead for a new church.

In Stuart, Project Restore had focused its efforts on disproving two of Bergman's assertions -- that restoration would cost $5.5 million (they say it could be done for about $3 million less) and that most of the parish is behind the plan for a new church.

The $5.5 million price tag was set two weeks after the fire by Neumann Brothers, a Des Moines construction company. The company had been called in to stabilize the building and help remove some of the icons.

The parish needed an estimate of how much it would cost to replace the church for the insurance settlement, said Marshall Linn, the construction company's executive vice president.

Two weeks isn't even close to enough time for a good estimate, Linn said, especially with no blueprints. They weren't sure what was there in the first place, let alone how much it would cost.


But the company did its best, Linn said, and told the parish and the diocese of its reservations about the estimate.

Later, structural engineer Don Staley unwittingly entered the fray with $2.5 million estimate used by Project Restore. Staley works in the Des Moines office of Minnesota-based Reigstad & Associates.

He called the parish, hoping to be a part of the restoration.

After looking over the Neumann Brothers estimate, Staley spotted many figures that he said were far too high.

The most expensive part of the church, its walls, were in good shape, he said. The church burned out fast and hot. Staley said. The roof was destroyed, but the plaster on the interior walls insulated the stone from the fire.

Staley suggested building a new structure inside the walls.

"They have plenty of money to restore that church," he said. "It's just whether they want to do that."

Parish council president Eric Tiernan dismisses Staley's estimate with a sigh, saying that it's an informal estimate made by a structural engineer, not an architect.

The council has discussed it, he said, and has moved on. Why, he asked, can't Project Restore move on, too?

The parish is in the process of buying 95 acres on the east side of town. Between 10 and 15 acres will be reserved for a new church, and the rest will be sold.

It's not just the money, Tiernan, said. The old church doesn't fit the needs of a modern Catholic congregation.

The parish council worked on that issue with the diocese building commission, said Jim Bond, a liturgical consultant to the diocese.

"In the past," Bond said, "churches were very compact. They were built for all the ritual action to take place in the sanctuary."

The priest stood with his back to the parishioners. Today, he said, the pastor faces the congregation. The altar is moved forward, and the parishioners are participants.

Modern churches also must observe all building and safety codes, Bond said. They're usually built on one level to be fully accessible to the handicapped.

During the 1970s, Bond said, the Stuart church was renovated to suit these needs. It was adequate, but not optimal. Although the circumstance surrounding the current decision are tragic, he said, it's a chance for the parish to build a space excellently suited to its liturgical needs.

That sort of talk drives the Rev. Loras Otting crazy. Otting is an archivist for the Dubuque, Iowa, diocese, and supports the effort to restore All Saints.

"I've seen so many beautiful churches that were supposedly modernized," Otting said, "and they were architecturally and aesthetically ruined."

Otting calls them "Pizza Hut" churches, boring buildings that lack inspiration. A church, he said, should make its parishioners feel like they have entered a sacred, holy place.

That's what May Claire Rohret wants from a church. That's what the retired Air Force colonel remembers about growing up in the Stuart parish. There was a serenity, Col. Rohret said, that she never found at any other church.

"I don't think there's a girl in this community
who hasn't dreamed of walking down that aisle."

Joan Gayle Glenn
Church parishioner

Now that she has returned home, she said, she's not happy with a "stripped-down church."

Yet Bond insists that the Stuart church doesn't have to be uninspired -- even if it's not as ornate as the former building. Parishioners can help form a creative design.

Beyond the liturgy, a new church should be designed with the future in mind, Bond said. As metropolitan Des Moines grows westward, more people might be living in Stuart and surrounding towns. The parish might need more seating and parking.

Members of Project Restore believe the parish council had little to say about the new building, that most decisions were made by the bishop's building commission.

But that's not the way Bishop Joseph Charron works, said diocese spokesman Tom Chapman.

"The bishop is the corporation," Chapman said. "If he wants to do what ever he wants, he does it. But as a practical matter, that's not what he does."

The decision to rebuild was very definitely the parish's, Tiernan said, but the parish council did make the decision with the bishop's opinion in mind.

"The diocese can approve or disapprove our decision," Tiernan said, "and it's surely easier to let them approve it."

If the parish council had wanted to restore, he said, "it would have been very hard to sell."

The objections in Stuart are normal, Bond said. A renovation or new building plan rarely pleases everyone.

"Project Restore has been unique in-that it has gone out side of the parish for support," Bond said.

Bergman criticized them for doing so, Doherty said. The pastor, who retired last month, would not comment. A new pastor, the Rev. Dan Clark, who started last week, could not be reached.

Many people who don't want a new church are scared to say so because they have seen how Project Restore members have been treated, Ms. Glenn said. Cold shoulders and dirty looks are common, she said.

For many in the parish, Doherty said, it's unthinkable to question the pastor or the diocese. But they have every right to do so, he said.

"This isn't something that is a matter of faith and morals," Doherty said. "We're under no obligation to follow the dictates of the bishop or any one else in this situation."

"As a Catholic, I have the duty to speak out if I see something wrong in the church. That's what they taught me to do."

The parish may lose one or two people over the skirmish, Tiernan said, but he once thought the results might be more severe.

"The majority of the parish -- and that's who we need to be concerned about -- will get behind the project."

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