VATICAN CITY -- They entered the Sistine Chapel in tuxedoes and gowns, the clacking of high heels on marble competing with the Latin chants of a choir filling the frescoed hall.
The donors to the Vatican Museums got serious VIP treatment during their recent visit to Rome: lectures on museum restoration projects, catered dinners in museum galleries, a vespers service in the Sistine Chapel celebrated by papal prefect Monsignor Georg Gaenswein -- and even a one-on-one with Pope Francis himself.
Such access comes with a price, but it's not as high as you might think.
For starters, all it takes is $500 a year to join the Patrons of the Vatican Museums, the fundraising organization that hosted last week's extravaganza. The events marking the Patrons' 30th anniversary did cost significantly more -- $1,900 a head for the entire five days of Vatican pampering -- but even that price seems a relative bargain given that a single New York fundraiser, without pope or music under Michelangelo, might run $1,000 a head or more.
"Are you kidding? You can't buy your way into this," marveled Ronald Poe as he sipped pink bubbly in the Gallery of Maps after the Sistine Chapel vespers Saturday night.
In fact, you can.
There are currently about 2,500 patrons and each year the Vatican can count on about $5 million from them -- averaging $2,000 a head -- with gifts added to revenue from the annual membership fee, said the Rev. Mark Haydu, the program director and priest of the Legion of Christ, a religious order known for its fundraising prowess. Most of the patrons hail from the U.S., where the program began after a traveling exhibit of Vatican treasures caught the attention of some art-loving philanthropists.
Over the years, their generosity has funded, among other things, the restoration of the Sistine Chapel and three of the four Raphael Rooms in the Apostolic Palace-- a point raised by Pope Francis when he greeted each of the 350-plus patrons and family members who gathered on Saturday in the palace for a private audience.
"Over the past three decades, the patrons have made an outstanding contribution to the restoration of numerous treasures of art preserved in the Vatican collections and to the broader religious, artistic and culture mission of the museums," he said. "For this I thank you most heartily."
Each year the Vatican Museums offers up a "wish list" of the works that need attention in hopes of finding a local chapter or individual patron to adopt the project.
The 2014 wish book includes cleaning an 18th century silk embroidered Manchurian dress (10,000 euros/$13,800); sponsoring an outside archaeologist to work on the necropolis dig underneath the Vatican's parking lot (40,000 euros) and buying new display cases for the Egyptian Museum (930,000 euros).
During the anniversary week in Rome, patrons were treated to demonstrations by laboratory restorers about their craft, dinners in Museum galleries and a rare question-and-answer session with a top official in the Secretariat of State about the Vatican's reform and relations with the media.
Basic membership, though, has its priceless privileges: Patrons can jump the line at the Vatican Museums and go straight to the Sistine Chapel before anyone gets in in the morning. They can get private tours of off-limit galleries and restoration labs, special access to St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican gardens. They get priority seating at the pope's weekly general audience and have an "in" to score coveted tickets to Midnight Mass.
Patrons aren't necessarily Catholic, but they tend to be art buffs eager for behind-the-scenes access that membership provides.
"We saw an ad in a travel magazine about the benefits of being a patron," said Esther Milsted, an attorney from Hoboken, New Jersey. She and her husband Mark Villamar wanted to see the Pauline Chapel inside the Apostolic Palace, which is not normally open to the public. They got in after joining and have since taken advantage of membership to visit restoration labs and participate in the anniversary festivities.
"It's a good deal -- and tax deductible," Villamar said.