By housing world's largest angel museum, Wisconsin church spared destruction

Posted: Friday, December 06, 2002

BELOIT, Wis. (AP) -- A small museum that sits on the banks of the Rock River in southern Wisconsin is a heavenly spot for angel lovers.

The Beloit Angel Museum features more than 7,500 angel statues displayed wing-to-wing in a former Roman Catholic church that was spared destruction so it could house the figures.

They come in an amazing variety. There are angels made of resin, porcelain, drinking straws, pasta, coal, tin, ceramic, wood, papier mache, stained glass, pine cones, cornhusks, wax, clothes pins and seal skin. One was made from a dried apple.

There's a firefighter angel, a hunter, nurse, pilot, doctor, bride and groom. One angel is tipsy, another is a bobble-head doll and some are even posing with devils.


These are two of the more than 7,500 angels of all sizes and shapes at the Angel Museum, housed in the refurbished St. Paul Catholic Church in Beloit, Wis., Oct. 3, 2002.

AP Photo/Morry Gash

Others double as bells, candles, candle holders, vases, smoke alarms, coasters, lipstick holders, pencil sharpeners and salt and pepper shakers.

The display has made the Guinness Book of World Records and includes angels from around the globe: Oprah Winfrey donated a collection of black angels.

In a sense, the angels saved the 98-year-old building where they are housed from being demolished.

''What I believe in my heart is the collection happened, the museum happened and it was something that was supposed to happen,'' said Joyce Berg, 71, who started the collection with her husband, Lowell, in 1976.

Their first two angels came from a Florida antique store.

''As we got involved it snowballed. They just were so sweet and we got caught up in the many, many different kinds there were,'' Joyce Berg said. ''It became a passion and it became our hobby.''

The couple used to take about three vacations a year and would buy angels as souvenirs from angel conventions, antique malls or flee markets. They once came home with 165 angels.

The entire collection originally was displayed in their four-bedroom ranch house in Beloit, about 65 miles southwest of Milwaukee, but that became challenging -- the Bergs had to remove doors and install shelves to display all the figures.

In July 1994, while out driving, they noticed St. Paul Catholic Church along the Rock River.

''When we drove past, the doors were open. ... The sun was shining right on them. It was like they jumped right out because they were so noticeable,'' Joyce Berg said.

The parish was closed in 1988 after the death of its longtime pastor, and the Bergs learned the church was scheduled to be demolished in eight months if it wasn't put to good use.

The Bergs contacted the church's former parishioners, and submitted a museum plan to city officials, who approved it.

The church, now a historical landmark, was renovated with community development block grants, fund-raisers and volunteer help. The city owns the church and charges the museum $1 a year for rent.

The museum opened May 1, 1998, and more than 54,000 visitors have passed through its doors since. The Bergs wouldn't say what the entire display is worth.

The museum actually has four different collections on display -- the Bergs', Oprah's, a memorial collection (angels given by various people in memory of loved ones who passed away) and the museum collection, which includes angels from people who willed or donated their angels. The Bergs' is by far the largest.

Joyce Berg said she didn't start collecting angels because of religious beliefs.

''What I hope (people) get out of it is the pleasure and the peaceful feeling and the enjoyment,'' Berg said. ''But I do know ... for a lot of people it is a religious experience.''

Sandy Rauss, 33, of Black River Falls visited the museum recently with her cousin and took photographs of an angel quilt she donated about a year ago. The quilt names people close to her who have died.

She said she's visited the museum three or four times for religious and spiritual reasons.

''I think it's a great thing they've done,'' she said. ''I've told a lot of people about it.''

The Bergs still collect angels, though not as they use to.

''I guess you reach a point you realize that you can't buy every different angel because they are still making different ones,'' she said.

About 1,000 angels are still displayed at the Bergs' home -- smaller representations of some at the museum, and angels with special meaning -- and 4,000 are in home storage.

The rest of the angels are on permanent loan to the museum.

''As long as there is an angel museum, our collection will be there,'' Berg said.


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