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Old Tontitown church bell tower all that's left standing

Deterioration forces former Tontitown church building to be taken down after 73 years

Published: February 5, 2018   
Alesia Schaefer
The bell tower and part of a wall remain after demolition of the 73-year-old church building in Tontitown Dec. 14. A memorial committee will look for ways the structure could be used to reflect the church’s history.

TONTITOWN — If the walls could have talked they would have told stories of love, forgiveness, new life and of loss. But the walls of the “old” St. Joseph Church in Tontitown were silenced in December with age and the passage of time having the final say.

For many, it was the end of an era as the demolition of the town landmark began Dec. 14. But this wasn’t the first church in Towntitown to meet its demise.

Calamities befell the two churches that came before it. A fire ravaged the first in 1927 and a tornado destroyed the second in 1934, a short seven years later. Four years passed before funding for the third church was secured and construction could begin on the same site in 1938. The third church was dedicated in 1944. Fifty years later, in 1994, the current larger church was built to accommodate a growing parish. 

Yet, for parishioners and locals, the old church was an iconic structure in the town of less than 5,000. Descendants of the Italian immigrants who first settled in the area had built the third church.

Beverly Cortiana, treasurer for the Tontitown Historical Museum, said her grandfather and great-grandfather had helped construct the church.

“My parents were married and buried in that church,” Cortiana recalled. “I remember Midnight Masses and holidays that were held inside those walls.”

For Cortiana, who lives in Bentonville and is a parishioner of St. Stephen, the church was more than a building.

“Originally, the church and the city were one in the same,” said Cortiana. “Father Pietro Bandini, who brought the original settlers from Italy in 1898, was elected mayor in 1909.”

“There have been efforts to preserve the building since around 2008, but the funding wasn’t there,” she said.

Townspeople and parishioners alike watched as a wrecking crew began the demolition on the building that has remained vacant since 1994 when the last Mass was held. What remains on the corner of Henri de Tonti Boulevard and Barrington Road are the original tower and a partial wall of the church.

“The condition of the old church was not good,” said Father John Connell, who currently serves as the pastor for both St. Raphael in Springdale and St. Joseph in Tontitown.

“It had been deteriorating for about 23 years. It was full of asbestos and was beyond repair and renovation,” he said. “People were sad to see it go, but as a whole, I believe the parish has been accepting of it.”

Paul Scouten, business administrator of St. Joseph, said, “A great deal of structural damage had occurred over the years.”

The current condition of the building was shared with parishioners more than a year ago. Scouten credits the former pastor, the late Father Greg Hart, with paving the way and beginning the conversation about the fate of the old church. An anonymous parishioner paid for a structural engineer to assess the integrity of the building.

In January the Memorial Planning Committee met for the first time to begin the process of vetting ideas for building a memorial on the site. These ideas will also decide the fate of the tower and wall that currently remain.

“We will use the second half of February to get design ideas from the congregation,” explained Father Connell. “After that we will narrow the designs down to a handful, get a landscape architect involved and present a memorial to the Parish Advisory Council for approval by the end of June.”

Funding the project, said Father Connell, will come later this summer after one is chosen.

“My goal is to have the memorial construction to begin before the end of fiscal 2018-2019, which could be as late as May or June of 2019. Depending on the design that is chosen, the tower may stay if it is incorporated into it or it may be taken down as early as this summer if it is not a part of the winning design.”

Any consecrated items were removed back in 1994. The altar, pews, lights, side altars, crucifixes, the cross above the entry door, statues and a few stenciled ceiling beams were stored for future use.

After the demolition, parishioners have been invited to come by the church office to pick up a memento from the old church as a keepsake, such as a brick or a piece of the wood.

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