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Collection of Angels Seems Heaven-Sent to Save Church

Wisconsin building was slated for demolition until Joyce Berg realized it could be a sanctuary for her winged figurines. Now, it's a museum.

September 10, 2006|Patrice M. Jones | Chicago Tribune

BELOIT, Wis. — Joyce Berg likes to say the angels saved the old St. Paul's Catholic Church. And they did -- at least indirectly.

The church closed in 1988, and the building changed hands a couple of times before former parishioners got wind of a redevelopment plan that meant tearing down St. Paul's.

Meanwhile, Berg was looking for a way to establish a museum for her massive collection of angel figurines. The church, she thought, would be perfect.

Today, the Angel Museum, which espouses no religious ideology, houses more than 12,000 angels of all shapes and sizes, most of them displayed under the former church's impressive stained-glass windows.

Berg, still a passionate collector at 75, seems to have a story about every angel picked up in 30 years of road trips and vacations with her late husband, Lowell.

She has been known to wear feathery angel wings, a white halo, angel earrings and a choir-type white gown when special visitors drop by the museum.

But she says she is just an ordinary woman with an unusual calling.

"I don't want to make myself out to be a saint or something," says the former elementary school teacher, giggling as she smoothes her robe. "I just love my angels. They make me feel good."

The angels -- linked to dozens of countries and fashioned in almost every material imaginable -- had taken over the Bergs' home, lining the walls and hanging from the ceiling. The couple had even taken out windows and doorways to display them.

Word got around that the Bergs would occasionally let visitors see the collection. But when a tour operator called one day asking to bring over a busload of folks, the couple decided they needed to find a better home for their little charges.

That's about when St. Paul's was targeted for demolition. The Bergs rallied former parishioners and other city boosters, and the concept of the angel museum took root.

"It was a marrying of two missions," said Andrew L. Janke, Beloit's economic development director.

The Angel Museum opened in 1998.

"The museum is kind of quirky, I guess, but it is a good quirky," said Martha Mitchell, executive director of Visit Beloit, the city's convention and visitors bureau. "It is a beautiful collection."

But these days, the Angel Museum is facing another battle: Between 25,000 and 30,000 visitors annually poured through the doors those first few years, according to Ruth Carlson, the museum's executive director. Now the number is down to about 7,000.

"We are kind of vulnerable right now," Carlson said.

Carlson says the museum's website is being revamped; the facility is partnering with Beloit College to bring more students to the museum; and the board and others are seeking new ideas.

The museum's initial popularity was fueled in part by a surge in interest in spirituality at the end of the century and by an unexpected encounter with celebrity.

In 1997, Oprah Winfrey happened to mention on her show that black angels were hard to find. Soon, her offices were flooded with gifts of black angels -- so many that she asked viewers to stop sending them.

A museum trustee was able to get word to Oprah's staff about Beloit's planned angel museum. With divine timing, Oprah told her viewers she would donate the angels to the museum.

The first shipment of Oprah's angels -- she has donated more than 1,000 -- arrived shortly before the opening.

Now the museum could use another boost.

"Sometimes at night when I say my prayers, I ask the Lord, 'Help the museum,' " Berg said. "I say, 'You know what a wonderful place it is and people enjoy it so much.' "

The museum, Berg says, is one of the most unusual tourist attractions in the Midwest. Between Berg's angels and other donated ones, there are too many to display at once.

Berg's personal angel collection was cited in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2001. Now, it exceeds 13,000; more than 10,000 are on permanent loan to the museum.

Angel figurine No. 1 started it all. The Bergs bought the bisque depiction of two cherubs on a seesaw in 1976 during a visit to Dania, Fla.

Watching for angels became the couple's vacation pastime. "We carried them in liquor boxes, pickle boxes, whatever we could find," Berg said. "And we would take toilet paper from the motels to wrap them."

"Everybody needs to have their own passion in life, their life's passion, and this is hers," said Berg's son Brian, 50, a mortgage loan officer who lives near Milwaukee.

The museum isn't just a repository for Berg's angels, but for memories.

Her husband died three years ago, after nearly 49 years of marriage.

"I can feel Lowell whenever I am here," Berg said as she looked at one glass case where she has placed a memorial to him: a figurine of a winged man with gray hair, sitting in a chair with a coffee cup and a crossword puzzle.

"I am here lots of times after hours just doing things and I sort of talk to him," Berg said. "I'll say, 'I'll be done pretty soon, Lowell, and we can go home.' "

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