Robert Francis Xavier Gerrer was born on July 23, 1867 in the village of Lautenbach, Alsace, and emigrated to the United States with his family in 1872 to escape the reign of German troops who had once again invaded the region. The family initially settled in St. Joseph, Missouri, but soon moved to Bedford, Iowa where Robert attended school. He demonstrated marked scholastic ability, and was allowed to skip more than one grade. At an early age he manifested aptitude for art and music. Robert entertained other youngsters with drawings on school slates, and used native clay to create sculpture. As he grew older he learned to play various musical instruments and even tried his hand at musical composition. His guitar became an intimate friend.
At the age of 19, Robert and his brother Albert traveled the Pacific Coast, first taking the train from Omaha to San Francisco, then a steamer up the coast through Portland, Puget Sound, Port Townsend and on to Victoria. Albert secured a job as a chef on a mail vessel; although Robert studied his brother’s efforts, he spent much of his time sketching their surroundings.
Upon returning to Bedford, Robert continued his musical training, and joined the Fifth Regiment Band of the Iowa National Guardsman. He expanded his repertoire to include playing the clarinet. Early in 1891 the Hurlbert and Leftwich Circus came to town; their orchestra and band needed a clarinetist…and thus began Robert’s brief career as circus performer.
Robert became a member of the Luther West band, and also taught guitar. Fortunately for us, he chose not to participate in the land run that fall, and planned to try his luck the following spring. This decision opened the door for Robert to meet his future.
Christmas 1891—Robert met Abbot Thomas Duperou, Superior of the Benedictine community at Sacred Heart Mission, Oklahoma. The Abbot had traveled to Guthrie to provide Catholics the appropriate liturgical services for the observance of Christmas. Robert struck up a conversation with him after confession one day, and shared with him the fact that he had considered becoming a priest, but his family did not have the money to support his studies. Fr. Thomas invited Robert to consider joining the community at Sacred Heart, and it wouldn’t cost him a thing. Robert accepted, and a few days later took the train to Purcell to begin the 40 mile trip by prairie schooner to the Mission. Robert wrote to his family upon his arrival, to tell them that he had joined the Franciscans; he discovered soon that the community was Benedictine.
In mid January of 1892, Robert received the Benedictine habit, and was given the religious name of “Gregory.” He found other musicians in the community, and it was not long before they had formed their own orchestra.
Under the guidance of several priests at Sacred Heart, Br. Gregory pursued his education to become ordained. He was also allowed to join in the art lessons being taught by Miss Kate Weyneck in Purcell, and gave all this spare time to it. His talent was recognized by Abbot Visitor Leander Le Moine, who proposed that Br. Gregory be sent to Europe to further study art. And so, shortly after his ordination at Buckfast Abbey in Devonshire, England in September 1900, Fr. Gregory Gerrer was sent to Rome to study art.
Father Gerrer studied fundamentals of portraiture from Ciro Galliazzi. With Salvatore Nobili, fresco painter for the Basilica of St. John Latern and director of the Vatican Mosaic Factory, he studied fresco painting. He soon realized that the student with initiative is not told how to paint. He may acquire certain skills and knowledge, but his inspiration and attitudes must come from the artist himself who is bound to record what he sees, what he feels.
Equally as important as developing his own skill in painting was his development of critical analysis for all art. With professor Guisepi Gonnella, he learned the delicate art of pictorial restoration. From gallery to gallery they went together documenting anonymous paintings by searching for similarities between the known and the unknown, between schools, techniques, underpaintings, brushstrokes. With tare oils, spirits of turpentine, knife, and infinite patience, discarded paintings were cleaned and restored to their original characters.
Fr. Gregory also had ample opportunity to travel throughout Italy and the Near East during his time there. His journals detailed visits to all the major art centers: Rome, Florence, Venice, Vienna. In 1903 he accompanied Abbot General Maurus Serafini on a mission to the Holy Land. During the trip Fr. Gerrer was presented with a gift, a small Egyptian scarab with a goose hieroglyph—the symbol for ‘A’, and to Gregory, the beginning of a museum collection.
In 1917 representatives of the University of Notre Dame contacted Fr. Gerrer and requested that he apply his knowledge and talents to their growing art collection. He spent much time that year cleaning, classifying, and arranging the works that would come to be known as the Wightman Memorial Gallery.
Fr. Gerrer would continue to act as an advisor and art instructor at Notre Dame for the next 15 years, spending summers in South Bend, autumns and sometimes winters in eastern cities as an artist, critic, or collector, and the remaining months devoted to the gallery and museum in Shawnee.
In 1919 Fr. Gerrer moved his treasures from his studio to the newly constructed St. Gregory’s College. There, several rooms were dedicated to exhibiting the museum collection of unusual objects, while the paintings were hung in the foyer and first floor hallway.
No longer hindered by the constraint of the size of his studio, the collection began to grow. Before he was finished, Fr. Gerrer had amassed over 200 paintings representing the history of art from the time of the Egyptians into the 20th century, and more than 6400 objects from cultures around the world.
Fr. Gerrer loved to travel when he could. In 1907, he helped establish the landing place of Columbus in the Caribbean, visiting Cuba along the way. 1917 found him traveling through northern New York, Canada, and later New Mexico. He made several trips through the northeast part of the country. And, in 1930, he returned again to Europe, and northwest Africa. In his final trip, Fr. Gerrer spent the summer in Mexico in 1936. All these places continued to fuel his painting.
Fr. Gerrer was commissioned to paint no less than 79 portraits during his lifetime. Half of these were portraits of ecclesiastical figures: a Pope, a cardinal, archbishops, bishops, abbots, priests, and nuns. The other half is represented by professional men, statesmen, heroes of war, friends, and relatives.
Rev. Gregory Gerrer, a monk of St. Gregory’s Abbey, set out just after the turn of the century to create a museum for all of Oklahoma to enjoy. His tireless efforts are evidenced by the number and kinds of things he collected. Before he was through, he had amassed some 6555 objects that included beautiful paintings and sculpture from the middle ages to early 20th century, artifacts of Western civilization, material examples from cultures around the world, botanical specimens, zoological specimens, mineralogical specimens, and oddities such as a block of tacks from the great Chicago fire. Nothing was outside his range of interest.
Fr. Gerrer’s collection was known as the St. Gregory’s Museum and Art Gallery, and was open to the public from 1919 until 1962 when the entire collection was placed on loan to the Oklahoma Science and Arts Foundation and exhibited in the Planetarium building on the fairgrounds in Oklahoma City. The loan was necessary due to the fact that St. Gregory’s was about to undergo remodeling and renovation to accommodate the change to a co-ed campus. The collection needed a safe place to stay, and the OSAF was willing to give it public exposure. The collection remained on loan to them until the mid 1970s.
Fr. Gerrer was a unique individual whose desire to bring culture to our state has secured his place in history. Admitted to the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1931, he was also recognized as the leading artist in the state at that time
While it was away, efforts to raise the funding needed to build a proper home for the collection were begun. These efforts culminated in the construction of the present facility, which opened in April 1979. In the name of the new museum Fr. Gerrer continues to be remembered, along with the Mabee Foundation of Tulsa whose financial generosity, along with those of hundreds of individuals and businesses, helped allow this facility to be built.