Wisconsin Woman Drawn to Angels

Odd Collections, On the Road, People, Travel Destinations
on December 23, 2001

Joyce Berg looks like she just stepped down from the top of a giant Christmas tree when she guides tour groups through the world’s largest angel museum in Beloit, Wis. (pop. 35,775). The petite woman wears a long, silver robe with white, silver-tipped wings. A silver halo floats on her snowy curls.

About half of Berg’s collection of 12,961 angels are on permanent loan to the Angel Museum, housed in the historic St. Paul’s Catholic Church, which she helped rescue from the wrecking ball in 1995.

“We wanted to share the angels with more people than we could accommodate at home, so we began searching for property that could serve as a museum,” recalls Berg, 69, an active member of the community since her husband, Lowell, purchased Beloit Grain Co. in 1954.

Berg spotted the perfect building to house her angel collection one July afternoon in 1994 during a drive through downtown Beloit. The sun-splashed, cream-colored doors of the vacant church caught her eye.

She immediately made inquiries about the brown brick church, which had been closed since 1988. At the time, the building was being used for storage by Beloit College and was soon to be demolished to make way for a park along the Rock River.

Berg, however, wasn’t about to let the historic church go quietly. With the help of former parish members and community leaders, she won support to save the Romanesque-style structure—built in 1914 to serve Italian immigrants—and to have it declared a historic landmark.

“Joyce was the spokesman who went to clubs and businesses to get community support,” says Ariel Amend, president of the nonprofit organization that operates the angel museum.

In December 1994, the city of Beloit, which owns the church property, gave the go-ahead to renovate the building. Through donations, grants, and fund-raisers such as selling 20,000 angel logo pins for $5 each, money was raised to replace the church’s roof, restore its original façade, install an elevator, and turn the basement into a gift shop and café. Volunteers contributed more than 20,000 hours of labor to make the church a heavenly place for Berg’s angels.

To display the angels, 34 large, custom-crafted oak cabinets, each with glass doors and five glass shelves illuminated by halogen lights, were installed. Four smaller cases from Berg’s home were placed along the church’s wall beneath a row of four round, stained-glass windows.

“The church is historic in itself, and the angel museum is a perfect fit,” says Martha Mitchell, executive director of Visit Beloit. “A lot of people are interested in angels or are angel collectors.”

Since the museum opened in 1998, more than 20,000 people from around the world have walked among Berg’s angels, which she began collecting as souvenirs on vacations with her husband after he retired in 1976.

While leading visitors through the maze of display cases, Berg weaves stories about the origins of the angels. Each cabinet is crammed with angels of various sizes and made from a variety of materials, including cornhusks and spaghetti. They adorn bells, music boxes, and banks, run the gamut from musicians to sports figures, biblical to cartoon characters, and represent countries from around the world.

Since the museum’s inception, more than 600 “black angels,” many donated by Oprah Winfrey, have been added to the collection.

The museum is closed during January for cleaning. Berg empties the cases, washes them, and polishes the glass. Then angels are dusted and returned to their appointed places on the shelves.

Berg feels a sense of accomplishment and joy as she guides people through the church on tours of her angel collection. “I hoped people would come in, feel peace, and go out with smiles on their faces,” she says. “That’s happening.”