This, the Rev. Bob Simon wants you to know, is a Kragle-free zone.
That is, the Vatican he’s building out of LEGO bricks — hundreds of thousands of them, mostly in white — holds itself together, no Krazy Glue (or Kragle if you saw “The LEGO Movie”) required.
“The dome scared me the most,” said Simon, a parish priest from near Scranton. “I was almost ready to stop.”
In fact, Simon said as a crowd of curious children and geeked-out adults gathered around his work area at The Franklin Institute, the scale replica of the Vatican and St. Peter’s Square is made entirely of standard-sized LEGO bricks and mini-figures. Only two custom-made mini-figures will make it into the finished display, one of Simon himself as part of the crowd of spectators, and one of Pope Francis.
Look closely: There’s the wee, white-haired pontiff, waving from the Vatican balcony at the pilgrims — tourists, officials, and tiny black-clad nuns — gathered in the piazza below. They’re standing on “cobblestones” made from 44,000 gray and black disc pieces. Around the nave, look in the alcoves filled with tiny chalices, and the repeating patterns of the windows. Even the pigeons and the homeless men and women who make St. Peter’s Square their home will be placed in the display.
The details are what make it real. From the sculpted garlands created from a LEGO wheel well and skeleton arms, to the Swiss guards fashioned out of Spanish conquistador figures with Elizabethan ruffs around their necks, no embellishment escaped notice. The plans came from photographs, three art books and architectural sketches of the Vatican.
A childhood friend, Joe Dubinski, and his LEGO-loving son, Nick, pitched in to help.
So when did Simon first hear the LEGO’s call? It came early, he said.
“They were building our parish church when I was 5, so as a little boy seeing backhoes and seeing excavators and things of that sort, I was fascinated,” he said. “So I started to build churches.”
A few years later, Pope Paul VI died and — in quick succession, Pope John Paul, then Pope John Paul II were elected — and the pageantry and ceremony inspired him to build a replica Vatican — on a smaller, simpler scale than his current project.
For the current LEGO Vatican, it took two years of gathering building materials (don’t even ask Simon how much it’s cost him) and several months of design and building. Simon first displayed the completed set at the BrickFair fan festival in Virginia in July, where he was approached by a man who had been a Swiss guard and who shared a secret: They’re big LEGO fans.
“They’re 20 years old, they’re celibate while they serve, they live in a barracks and they love LEGO,” Simon said. He mused that LEGO would have a ready market for official Swiss guards mini-figures.
While at BrickFair, Simon emailed photos of his work to the Franklin Institute, which had opened its wildly successful “Art of the Brick” exhibition in February. Within hours, the museum contacted him about bringing the Vatican to Philly.
The timing couldn’t have been better, as the Art of the Brick’s run was extended through October, and the “Vatican Splendors” exhibition opens Sept. 19, just before Pope Francis arrives in Philly.