Construction of a new church still has Stuart citizens on edge.

By Keesia Wirt - Register Staff Writer
July 26, 1997 (Page 1M)

Catholic officials have released a drawing of plans for a new church in Stuart to replace the fire-ravaged All Saints Church.

Deciding to build a new church simply was a matter of economics for the All Saints Church parish council in Stuart. It also was a matter of destroying the heart of a small Iowa community, say some church members.

The burned out shell of the 1908 landmark All Saints Church building has ignited a two-year controversy that has divided Stuart, a town of 1,200 about 40 miles west of Des Moines.

"There's a lot of hard feelings and hurt in the community about this thing," said Gene Fitzgerald, parish and council member at All Saints. "But it boils down to economics, to dollars and cents."

On Aug. 31, there will be a ground-breaking ceremony for the $3.5 million church building that will replace the original All Saints Church, which was set on fire in August 1995 by Charles Willard of Des Moines.

The decision to build a new church was made by the parish council in February. But many church members are not ready to see the old church, a Byzantine-style building that was modeled after St. Mark's Catholic Church in Venice, Italy, torn down.


The controversy is so hot that many Stuart business owners and townspeople are not comfortable speaking publicly about the issue. More than a half-dozen people Friday declined to comment, citing the loss of business or friends as their reason to remain quiet.

Not everyone is keeping quiet.

Members of Project Restore, an organization started in January 1996 to save the old church building, say church members want the building restored. Joan Glenn, vice president of the group, said it is difficult to sum up the public's views.

"There's a lot of fear," she said. "They don't want to be chastised for speaking out against a priest, a church or a diocese."

The decision to build the new church is final, but the fate of the old building remains unknown. Church officials have not decided what to do with the burned building, Fitzgerald said. It was scheduled to be town down this spring, but a decision was made to leave it standing at least until the new building is finished in two years.

Church groundbreaking earth-shaking in Stuart


Glenn, a 39-year member of the church, said it is more than just a building to the town. "It's our history, our culture, our heritage. And they're just ripping it away as if it means nothing to us."

She said in a poll given to the parish, which has 185 families, only two people wanted to build a new church. The group also has a petition with more than 600 names of people in town who are in favor of restoring the old building.

Father Dan Clarke, pastor of All Saints the past three months, said parish members will grow to love the new church as much as they did the old one.

"The acoustics there were lousy. In this new one, there is a bomber sound system. They love the old church and all that, but they'll be able to hear the priest and keep the choir together with the organ in the new building," Clarke said. "People can see the pluses to this decision."

Fitzgerald agrees. He said they really had no choice but to build a new church. The insurance company would have had to pay $8 million, and the parish would have had to pay an additional $3 million, to restore the old church. When it was determined a new church could be built for under $4 million, the decision was made, Fitzgerald said.

"We don't have a sugar daddy around that I know of to pay $3 million," he said.

Glenn said the renovation estimates that were given to church members were inaccurate and inflated. She said an architect in Des Moines said the old building could be renovated with the $3.9 million insurance settlement.

Fitzgerald said the decision was made in the best interests of the parish. He said no one wanted to have a $3 million debt.

"It's like a divorce or a death," he said. "You grieve, but then you get on with life. This is a building, it's not a human being. This is a church, and now it's a burned-out shell."

Glenn said Project Restore will continue to work to restore the church into some type of building -- a movie theater, a community center or a museum.

She said the saddest part of this issue is that church leaders didn't listen to the members.

"What the parish council neglected to do from the beginning was to look to their greatest resource, the people," Glenn said. "They failed to involve the people. All they thought about was the money."

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