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Sunday, June 2, 2002
Last modified at 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, June 5, 2002
© 2002 - The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal

Area priest crucial in landing frescoes


Why was Lubbock chosen to host an exhibit of 31 priceless, never-before-displayed, historical frescoes over a major metropolitan area?

Visitors planning to see ''Medieval Frescoes from the Vatican Museums Collection'' at the Museum of Texas Tech are wondering how it ended up in Lubbock. The exhibit, which opens today and runs through Sept. 15, is the first collection of art from the Vatican Museums in Rome to be loaned to a single city.

The Rev. Richard Bourgeois, overseeing North American chapters of Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, said, ''My first thought when I heard about this exhibit is, 'Who in Lubbock knows who with the Vatican Museums?' Things like this just don't happen.''

The answer is the Rev. Malcolm Neyland, a West Texas priest who oversees congregations in small towns Post and Wilson. He came to know and form a friendship with Francesco Buranelli, acting director general of the Vatican Museums in Rome since 1997.

Seeing art travel from the Vatican Museums in Rome to Lubbock is a 14-year dream-come-true for Neyland, who was overcome when he viewed art works at the Vatican Museums for the first time in 1988.

When he bonded with Buranelli in 1991, he also found an ally and a liaison with the pope, although nothing in terms of art for Lubbock was ever mutually discussed until 1997.

After his first eight years of exploratory work, Neyland presented his vision to Bishop Placido Rodriguez of the Catholic Diocese in Lubbock. The bishop embraced the priest's dream.

Rodriguez said, ''Once Father Neyland communicated to me his desire, we prepared and went to Rome in 1997 and asked the proper permission of the Vatican. First, I asked Cardinal (Angelo) Sodano, the secretary of state for the Vatican, for permission to host a Vatican Museums art exhibit.

''I spoke on behalf of the Catholic Church in Lubbock. The key to understand why this exhibit is possible is to understand the important role of the bishop. The entire Catholic Church hinges on the bishops, and even though we're a young diocese -- only 18 years old -- nevertheless, we're truly respected as a local church, as a diocese. I knew that the Vatican would hear the diocese's request.''

A verbal agreement was made in 2000 after Buranelli gave Neyland a peek at the yet-to-be-restored frescoes.

A contract was signed in February 2001. Neyland said the primary reason Lubbock was approved was to allow citizens who generally do not travel to large American cities, much less Rome, an opportunity to view art from the Vatican Museums.

But first, Neyland and Rodriguez had to secure a gallery that could support such an exhibit and provide ample security. And they needed political, as well as financial, clout.

The first letters of support came from then then-Texas Tech Chancellor John Montford, then-Lubbock Mayor Windy Sitton, Lubbock City Council members and Tech professors. U.S. Rep. Larry Combest, R-El Paso, served as ''official liaison between the U.S. government and the Vatican City State.''

Texas Tech agreed to provide the space and security.

Neyland was left with fund-raising for shipping, publicity, security outside the museum of Texas Tech and all ancillary costs. A Vatican Exhibit 2002 Foundation was formed, with Neyland president and executive director. That foundation, co-founded by scores of Texas South Plains residents, was aided by the Vatican Exhibit Committee and charged with raising funds to support the exhibit.

These frescoes could not have been exhibited anywhere before now. Buranelli noted that it wasn't until five years ago that scientific methodology was perfected to allow frescoes to be removed from walls.

Following this Lubbock exhibit, the frescoes will return to Rome and will not be exhibited again until 2025.

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