Commentary: Marking a Century of Bringing Great Artworks to Oklahoma

Article excerpt

It was 100 years ago, in 1904, that a 37-year-old Benedictine priest named Father Gregory Gerrer of the Sacred Heart Mission in Oklahoma was given permission to paint a portrait of Pope Pius X in Rome.

The portrait was shipped to St. Louis, where it won a first prize at the 1904 World Fair. Father Gerrer later painted a replica of the portrait for the Vatican and opened a studio in Shawnee in 1905. He started painting other portraits and opened an art class in 1909. In 1915, he founded what is now the Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art at St. Gregory's University - one of the oldest museums in Oklahoma.

That is a tiny bit of the remarkable story behind the current special exhibit of Unveiling Ancient Mystery: Etruscan Treasures at the museum. More than 200 pieces of Etruscan gold jewelry and 14 pieces of Etruscan marble and artifacts are being shown from the private collections of Italian Prince Alliata and from the Gregorian- Etruscan Museum of the Vatican Museums. All this stems from the Etruscan civilization that pre-dated Rome in Italy.

The exhibit is drawing national attention, because the Mabee- Gerrer Museum is the only place in the United States where it will be presented, said Museum Director Debby Williams. This also is the first time many of the Vatican Museums pieces will be exhibited, and the first time the gold jewelry has ever been exhibited. The exhibit, which opened in June, will continue through Oct. 31.

How did this happen? How was the Mabee-Gerrer Museum founded and developed to the point of hosting this incredible exhibit ahead of the great museums of New York, Chicago and numerous other large American cities? To answer this question, I read a little known typewritten autobiography of Father Gregory Gerrer. It was provided to me by an extended member of the Gerrer family, which had a reunion at the museum in June with people from France, Germany and from coast to coast.

Father Gregory was born as Robert Francis Xavier Gerrer in Alsace Lorraine, Bartenbach, France on July 23, 1867. He was three-and-a- half when the Franco-Prussian War broke out, and he remembered crying out: Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Prussians are here as they marched up the street. His uncle, who lived in St. Joseph, Mo., invited the Gerrer family to move to the United States. The family moved in 1872 to Bedford, Iowa. His father, who been a baker for Napoleon III, found work in his trade and became a partner in a baking business. Robert Gerrer lived in Bedford until he was 19.

He traveled with his older brother Albert to the West Coast in 1886 and became a musician. He returned in 1887, joined a circus and played in the band, finding his way to San Antonio and then to Guthrie. He played in a band there until 1891, when he met Father Abbot Thomas Duperon of the Sacred Heart Mission, which had been founded east of Asher and northwest of Konowa in Pottawatomie County by Benedictine Missionaries in 1875. Duperon invited Gerrer to the mission.

Gerrer went to the mission and received a Benedictine habit in 1892 and was given the religious name of Gregory. He worked as a baker, played music and painted scenery for plays.

In 1886, Kate Weyneck came to Purcell to teach art to Franciscan sisters, and Gerrer was allowed to join the class. That spurred his interest in art and led to his 50-year career. A visiting abbot noticed his work and proposed to send him to Europe to study art. He visited relatives in France and then went to Devonshire, England, where he was ordained a priest as Father Gregory in 1900. …