The small crew of Villanova students and professors entered the Sistine Chapel at 8 p.m. - after it was closed to the public and everyone but a few workers had left.

And for the next three hours, they were allowed to film almost alone and uninterrupted the most well-known chapel in the Vatican, even moving inside the small area where ballots are counted in the election of a new pope - which is normally roped off to the public.

"It was perfectly silent. It really was sort of outside of time," said Bryan Crable, chair of Villanova's Communication Department and one of the professors on the project.

The Sistine Chapel shoot was part of a larger project being undertaken by the Villanova team, which is resulting in unprecedented virtual-reality tours of the holiest of spots in the Vatican.

Villanova students interning there this school year, along with their professors, were given special, off-hours access so that they could produce the tours for the Vatican, the first of which is now on the Vatican's Web site.

The tour of the Basilica of St. Paul - with 360-degree panoramas of the courtyard, baptistry, apse, and six other sites - appears with a written thank-you to Villanova.

The Sistine Chapel tour will require more filming and additional approvals, and won't go up until next school year, Crable said.

Students and their professors also filmed in several other basilicas, including St. Peter's, St. John Lateran, and St. Mary Major.

Those tours are expected to be posted in the coming months, Crable said.

Next fall, as the unique partnership progresses, they could be filming in some areas seen rarely, if at all, by the public, such as a series of excavations of an old cemetery under St. Peter's on Vatican Hill.

Samantha Coveleski, 22, said the experience filming inside the Sistine Chapel, as well as working in the basilicas, left her "speechless."

"We were really able to go past the red rope, behind the altar, back where the pope might stand, to get these beautiful shots, and that was pretty incredible," said Coveleski, 22, a communication major from Lewes, Del., who graduated last month.

While other universities may send students to work in the Vatican at times, Villanova is the only school with a formal, ongoing relationship, according to the Vatican. It has been sending a handful of computer science and communication students to the Vatican to do various jobs each year for several years.

The Internet project was proposed by Villanova professors and embraced last fall by Vatican officials who were looking for a way to interact better with the world via its popular Web site and bring the spaces to a wider audience than just those who visit Rome.

While the Vatican had pictures and text posted on its site before, it has never had "anything of this quality," said Msgr. Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications at the Vatican.

Tighe praised "the passion, the professionalism," of the Villanova team.

"Everybody is so impressed, and those [within the Vatican] who are aware are considering how they can use this unique, cooperative arrangement we have with Villanova," he said.

It took a while to secure permission for the project. Access to the Sistine Chapel, where photos normally aren't allowed, proved the most challenging, Crable said.

"We had to sign papers on behalf of the university saying we weren't going to damage anything and that the university would be liable for any damage," Crable said. "So I was a little nervous until we got out of there."

Just getting to the chapel required the crew to haul its equipment through hallway after hallway lined with priceless artwork.

Once inside, the crew had extensive time to study the art unlike the way most visitors, herded through in large groups, see it. The crew was allowed in on two nights, but had to be out of the Vatican by 11:30 p.m. - a requirement for all nonresidents.

While Tighe acknowledged that past groups had secured permission to film inside the Sistine Chapel, he doubted that anyone had had as long as the Villanova crew.

"There was a guard whose job it was to write down our movements every 15 minutes," Crable recalled.

He noted that the equipment for the project, student travel, and some other expenses were covered by a gift from Villanova alum Lawrence Waterhouse, Class of 1959, founder and chairman emeritus of TD Waterhouse Investor Services Inc.

The virtual tour, for which the Vatican has the copyright, allows viewers with a left click of the mouse to rotate the camera from wall to wall, floor to ceiling, zooming in and out. At St. Paul's, viewers can zoom in on ornate gilded candlesticks, marble statues, medallion-shaped portraits of popes and saints around the frieze, and the basilica's coffered ceilings.

"You can look at things that you wouldn't be able to with the naked eye," Crable said.

Caroline Ford, 20, a soon-to-be senior from Pittsburgh, said her family was impressed.

"They're trying to live vicariously through me," she said.

She recalled entering St. Paul's one morning before it had opened to the public.

"Almost everything was dark. The only lights on were up in the apse. There were priests having their own little Mass," she said. "It was just breathtaking at that moment."

To see the video, go to http://go.philly.com/vaticanvideo EndText

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.