Mar 232014

highways and bywaysI was planning to use my recently concluded Spring Break to tackle the backlog of ungraded papers, unwritten posts, unanswered correspondence, and other unattended matters that has been piling up since the start of the semester. My plans were undone by a familial request. Winter has been particularly long and nasty here — making the household natives particularly restless. Shortly before I was about to hunker down and get to work I was informed, “We need to go someplace over break.” The tone of delivery made clear the one, correct answer: “Yes, Dear.”

As we were already scheduled to make a brief visit to the Kansas City-area, the decision was made (note: passive voice) to locate someplace within a day’s drive from there where the weather was warm and “there were things to do.” That someplace turned out to be Dallas, TX.

Indeed, Dallas does have things to do all connected by countless miles of concrete expressways. Among the items crossed off the Agenda during the short two-day stay were visits to the Arboretum and Botanical Garden (the weather was gorgeous, though it was a month early for the best visuals); the Perot Museum of Nature and Science (the exhibit halls on engineering and energy production are excellent, go figure), Snider Plaza (abutting the gob-smackingly gorgeous campus of Southern Methodist University); and all the Tex-Mex we could eat (yum). Domestic tranquility thus insured, the visit was a success.

The most memorable part of the journey, however, didn’t take place in “Big D,” but on the way there during a brief stop in Carthage, Missouri (Jasper County seat and America’s “Maple Leaf City,” population 14,378.)

The first billboard appeared alongside I-49 about thirty miles or so north of town. As soon as I saw it, I determined (active voice!) it was time to take a break from the road. We’d pull over to stretch our legs. At the same time, we’d use the delay to visit The Precious Moments Chapel.

Created by Christian illustrator and self-styled “chalkboard minister” Samuel J. Butcher in 1974, “Precious Moments” began as pen-and-ink cartoons of teardrop-eyed children hawked at Christian conventions and trade shows. Toward the end of the decade it metastasized into a line of collectibles. The brand’s best-known products are porcelain golems fixed in endearing poses inspired by religious or devotional themes. "He's got...lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eyes."Precious Moments, in short, is a quintessential example of the curious combination of consumerism and Christianity that has long been a feature of American popular culture.

The franchise hit its stride in the mid- to late-1980s when it was transformed into a “giftware” business and licensing company (Precious Moments, Inc.). In addition to selling figurines and related merchandise, PMI undertook the production of several animated films and the construction of a Precious Moments theme park outside scenic Carthage, MO. At the height of its popularity, the Carthage attraction welcomed upwards of 400,000 (!) visitors each year. Its leading attraction: the Precious Moments Chapel.

I first learned of the Chapel way back in my undergraduate days. A friend and her family had visited shortly after it opened (in 1989) and related the wonder of it all. Although I grasped the concept, the nature and scope of the production didn’t quite register. Those were the pre-Internet days; there was no Google image search. (Having experienced it, I can now safely attest pictures can’t do the place justice). In any event, on the road to Dallas, Serendipity gave rise to an unexpected pilgrimage; I wasn’t about to miss the chance to see it myself.

Exiting the Interstate we headed West and then South over a few miles of narrow town and narrower county roads. The thoroughfare leading to the site (aptly christened “South Chapel Road”) is intermittently bedecked by modest housing and business units and, on the day of our visit, a discouraging amount of roadside litter. In short order, our destination emerged from the right — a looming, but architecturally nondescript, mass of pink terra cotta cladding and adobe tiles fronted by an expanse of concrete and asphalt. No more than three or four vehicles were parked outside. Opposite the main entrance, across South Chapel Road to the East, lay a even larger, empty parking area outfitted with provisions for dozens of RVs (a remnant of the halcyon days of the 1990s?).

As befits a business built to move collectible kitsch, visitors enter the main building to find themselves inside a mall-like venue comprising a large, open commons decorated in cartoonish fashion after a stylized English village. The ensemble calls to mind nothing so much as a Walt Disney knock-off complete with the occasional animatronic figure. Here is the world’s largest Precious Moments Gift Shoppe, a year-round Christmas Shoppe, the Samuel Butcher “Archive Collection,” and a cafe. At the back of the mall (technically, the “Visitor’s Center”) an exit opens out to a park-like setting containing neatly landscaped ponds, flowerbeds, statuary, and fountains. A concrete pathway, the “Avenue of Angels,” leads toward a terra cotta and wrought iron wall that serves as boundary to the grounds of the Chapel.

From the outside the Chapel isn’t much to behold. Only the large, intricately carved wooden door hints of the wonders that lie within. It opens into a small vestibule which leads visitors, in turn, into the main…sanctuary? — a large rectangular room with a small set of steps leading to a raised area on the end opposite the entry doors. The room is empty, but amply decorated. From floor to ceiling the walls (and ceiling) are covered in paintings depicting Precious Moments figures in Biblical poses or undertaking various devotional and daily activities. The largest art work is the monumental painting covering the far back wall. In its foreground to the left, three figures hold placards reading “Welcome to your Heavenly Home.” (Adorably, the “Welcome” sign is upside down.) The remainder of the canvas is populated with dozens of Butcher’s Precious creatures milling about in their afterlife. Off in the distance, Jesus ministers to his flock.

Exiting the main room to either the left or the right visitors find themselves in a long hallway. Both wings boast intricately detailed stained-glass windows depicting more Biblically-inspired Precious Moments. The left wing ends in administrative offices; the right one leads toward a separate devotional room built in honor of Butcher’s son, Philip, who was killed in a car accident the year after the Chapel opened. A large mural portrays a child’s empty bed surrounded by a dozen or so mournful Precious creatures representing real-life family and friends. Overhead, Philip is being “welcomed Home” to his afterlife. What makes the otherwise saccharine image unsettling is that at the time of his death Philip was twenty-seven years old.

Further down is a “Memorial Room” containing photographs and mementos from Philip’s childhood; there are also photographs, letters, and testimonies donated by Precious Moments devotees. An open guest book invites visitors to leave comments about their own dearly departed and their personal encounter(s) with the Chapel. Many do. We didn’t. As it turns out, plans are underway to expand the complex by building “Timmy’s Tower” a structure which will pay homage to another of Butcher’s sons who passed away two years ago (at the age of forty-five).

I’m still not sure what to conclude from the visit. The Precious Moments complex and collectible franchise strike me as decidedly odd and obsessive, not unlike their creator, Samuel Butcher. Butcher, it turns out, has  bi-polar disorder and has been prone to extended bouts of “self-medication.” For the past several years, he’s spent most of his time living in the Philippines not far from a second complex, “Precious Moments Manila.” But PMI is hardly a one-man gig. The corporation is under the direction of two other sons. Presumably the have considerable say enabling (and profiting from) their father’s creations.

Certain aspects of the commercial venue are decidedly crass. Case in point is the large figurine in the “Visitor’s Center” modeled after this photo of a fireman and child victim of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. It would be easy to rail against the lack of taste displayed by the customers who sustain the business, but it is clear that a sizable number of sincere folks attach considerable meaning to the Precious.

All things being equal, if you ever find yourself within an hour’s drive (or so) of Carthage, MO I strongly recommend you make a detour to visit the Chapel and complex.

It must be seen to be believed.

Though having seen it, I still don’t believe it.