A summary of an actual case that has to do with ecclesiastical law.

by Charles Wilson, Executive Director

The town of Stuart, Iowa, situated 40 miles west of Des Moines on Interstate 80, was once an important rail center complete with roundhouse. In order to serve the spiritual needs of the growing number of railroad workers as well as the faithful in the surrounding rural area, All Saints Parish was founded in 1876. Some thirty years later, it became apparent that a new and larger church building was required.

"All Saints Catholic Church was built in 1908, designed by the Boston architectural firm Maginniss and Walsh...Fashioned in the stoutly proportioned style of Romanesque Revival, the church's design was inspired by the Byzantine cathedral of St. Mark's in Venice, Italy. A simple but powerfully articulate Basilican plan, rendered in a ruggedly rusticated limestone cladding, enclosed a magnificently scaled, 50 foot tall inner sanctuary." (Iowa Architect, Spring, 1996)

The interior of All Saints was as extraordinary and inspiring as the exterior. The main altar and two side altars were made of Italian marble and built by workmen brought over from Italy for the job. Also imported from Italy were the hand-painted plaster casts of the Stations of the Cross. The stained glass windows were made by the renowned Meyer Studios in Munich, Germany. The interior of the church, which included hand-painted designs on the plaster ceiling, was illuminated by ten solid brass light fixtures.

After seven decades, the church building showing its age but in 1976 was painstakingly restored, even though by that time many beautiful and historic Catholic churches in the United States had already fallen victim to the mania for destroying most everything reminiscent of Catholic tradition. How All Saints avoided the hands of the "updaters" in 1976 is not entirely clear. But nineteen years later, on August 22, 1995, a demented, anti-Catholic arsonist by the name of Charles Willard gave them their chance.

In spite of the heroic efforts of the fire departments of Stuart and nearby communities, All Saints Church suffered extensive damage. The dome had to be removed to forestall further collapse and the interior was nearly gutted. Nonetheless, the walls remained intact and it was at first assumed by the parishioners and the community- at-large that the insurance settlement of approximately $3,900,000 would be adequate to restore the church to its approximate appearance before the fire, although it was commonly understood that exact duplication of the methods and materials used in 1908 would be prohibitively expensive.

It soon became obvious that plans were afoot to destroy what was left of All Saints and build a new church, either on the old site or elsewhere. Just days after the fire, the pastor, Fr. Richard Bergman, was reported as saying that "several factors" would be considered and that "he could not speculate when a decision might be forthcoming" to restore the old church or build a new one. Then, figures of $7,300,000 for restoration as opposed to $2,500,000 were circulated and a "survey" was taken on January 3, 1996, a bitterly cold day and at a time when many parishioners were away for the winter. This survey and what some parishioners describe as wildly inflated cost projections were the reasons given why the parish council decided in February, 1996 to recommend building a new church.

Many parishioners could not understand the decision to build a new church on a site outside town, especially if it would involve the loss of their historic and beautiful structure. Those opposing the plan were convinced that the cost estimates presented by parish leaders and the Diocese of Des Moines was erroneous. They formed a corporation called Project Restore, obtained figures from other experts and claimed that the church could be rebuilt for considerably less than the $3,900,000 received from the insurance company. With interest, the insurance money has grown to well over $4,000.000.

The members Project Restore are not the only ones in favor of restoring All Saints Church. In January, 1997, Project Restore mailed a survey to the parishioners. The results, compiled by an independent auditor and with 61% of the parishioners responding, showed that 64% wanted the church rebuilt. Furthermore, expressions of concern from the citizens of Stuart and from individuals and organizations, including the Iowa Historic Preservation Alliance, from throughout Iowa showed an overwhelming consensus that the old building should be preserved.

As we have seen in other cases, the parish leadership resorted to crude and intimidating tactics in an attempt to silence the opposition. Anyone suspected of sympathizing with the aims of Project Restore was subject, at the least, to jeers and cat-calls at open meetings and icy hostility from the pastor's allies. Project Restore and its friends remain undaunted. Their courage and steadfastness have gained the respect of just about everyone except the clique presently in control of the affairs of the parish and the bureaucrats in the chancery. If all else fails, they are prepared to launch a state-wide fund raising campaign to restore the building, even as merely an historical site. Should this come to pass, they will not abandon their dream the All Saints Church may someday be used for public worship.

There are, of course, some non-canonical aspects to this case, as is true of the great majority of cases in which the Foundation has been asked to assist. And the canonical issues here have more to do with general principles of justice and the spirit of the law rather than explicit statutes.

While I would not say that the Church ought to be a democracy, it is surely arguable that the ecclesiology flowing from the Second Vatican Council would view the exercise of ecclesiastical governance not as an exercise of raw power but a ministry of service. Even so, whenever unpopular decisions have to be made, this same spirit of service requires that all the reasons be thoroughly revealed and that those effected by the decision have a right to be heard. The sad fact that the opposite has happened in Stuart has left the parish in a state of disarray and the general public bewildered.

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