The Rev. Bob Simon has dreamed of making a Lego replica of the Vatican since he was in seventh grade. He will talk about his dream come true with interested Wyoming Valley residents next month.
The Plains Township native’s creation of a mini St. Peter’s Basilica made out of a half-million Legos is being displayed at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia until Feb. 15.
Area residents also can catch Simon at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 8 at the Pittston Memorial Library where he will speak on “The Secrets of the Lego Vatican.”
“As a little boy, I loved playing with Legos. When I was in seventh grade, I tried to build the Vatican. It was a rather crude attempt,” he laughs.
Twenty-five years ago, as a newly-ordained priest at the Cathedral of Scranton, Simon was given a Lego train by the staff, introducing him to his love of building with bricks.
In 2013, Simon made his way to BrickFair Virginia, an annual Lego convention. “I saw these amazing things that adults built. I knew that if I wanted to build something, it would be the Vatican.”
At first, “I focused on building the facade. I duplicated one balcony, one doorway at a time. I almost stopped when I realized how huge it would have to be.”
Despite the size of the project, Simon kept at his work, adding in St. Peter’s Square before BrickFair Virginia this past July. “It got a lot of attention there,” he says. “It was voted the public’s favorite of the show.”
One of Simon’s friends then emailed The Franklin Institute about the Vatican.
“Within two hours, (The Franklin Institute) responded that they were interested,” Simon says. “They had an exhibit called The Art of the Brick, which two days before, had been extended for another month.”
Initially, Simon was unaware the “Vatican Splendors” exhibit was opening Sept. 19 and his sculpture would act as a bridge between the two special exhibitions.
“It really is an amazing thing that it’s ending up in Philadelphia in such close proximity during (Pope Francis’) visit,” he said.
Even more amazing is the work that went into getting the Lego Vatican to Philadelphia. “The walls of the Basilica break into 12 pieces, the roof into eight and then the square is made up of about 16 base plates that all fit together.”
Once the pieces arrived at the museum, Simon said it took two days to rebuild. “The square is the most labor intensive part because there’s 44,000 loose cobblestones and the colonnades have to be rebuilt on site.”
Simon had to work during the museum’s regular hours. “It was almost like being paid to play with Legos in public as a 50-year-old. There were a couple of young fathers who came by and said I want your job.”
Interacting with fellow Lego lovers has been the highlight of the whole experience. “Seeing the excitement on kids’ faces has been very nice. The last time I was at the institute, there was a high school student who came to see my Vatican. He was starting to get ashamed with his interest in Legos. It was nice to encourage him in his creativity.”
Creativity was what Simon had to rely on while building his Vatican, as well as memory, pictures and Google Earth. “Having been there, it was easy to want to replicate details like a Vatican postal service mailbox in the square that somebody might have missed.”
After spending over a year collecting pieces and building the Vatican, does Simon have another project in mind?
“I bought a few bricks thinking about at least the exterior of the Sistine Chapel. I’m still thinking about that.”
Of course, February might not be the end. Simon shares that one of the museum curators told him there’s a next step. “I don’t know what that means but I’m just enjoying the ride and the experience of it.”
Simon’s Lego Vatican is a dream come true. “This is the first Lego thing I’ve built as an adult. A project like this has taught me, do what you enjoy doing. Go with it, no matter what anyone says.”