'So pioneering': Lay Centre co-founder reflects on beginnings, art and adventure

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'So pioneering': Lay Centre co-founder reflects on beginnings, art and adventure

By Elena Dini 

ROME — Riekie van Velzen is a storehouse of memories and holds the history of The Lay Centre in her hand. The co-founder of The Lay Centre, Riekie has served as the administrator for more than 30 years, and has seen many scholars come through the centre’s doors. 

How did the “adventure” of The Lay Centre start for you?

This adventure started when I was working for the Ladies of Bethany at the Foyer Unitas as an accountant and assistant in the information office, which was offering services to non-Catholic visitors to the city.

In the mid-1980s the Ladies of Bethany decided to close their centre. Donna Orsuto and I had been already working together for seven years and I remember one morning we were having a coffee and discussing the impact the imminent change would have. The space would be given back to the Doria Pamphili family, the Ladies of Bethany would go back to Holland, but we thought it was a pity to lose this opportunity to create a space with accommodation for lay theology scholars coming from abroad to pursue studies in Rome. So, we decided to try to transform the Foyer Unitas guesthouse, as it was then, into a home for lay scholars, and so the adventure began. We inherited furniture and, after some years, became a formal organization.

Looking back, I don’t know how we actually made it since, at the beginning, we didn’t know anything about laws and requirements, but we managed!


You are here as a founder of The Lay Centre but at the same time you know so well the experience the students live when they arrive in Rome...

Yes, I have always been happy to see how much students feel at home after a while and how some flourished after finding a safe home.

I, myself, have neverbeen a full-time student in Rome, but I did some studies here. I am originally from Holland and, while working, I attended a school for interpreters in Rome and learned some Arabic at thePontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies PISAI. I also experienced some of the legendary Latin classes of Reginald Foster. Meanwhile, I got married and raised two children, Christiaan and Jessica, who have always been very much part of The Lay Centre community. I could say they were “half adopted” by The Lay Centre scholars, who were babysitting them or helping them with homework sometimes.


Art is another important aspect of your life. Could you tell us more about it?

In 1995, I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time and two friends offered me a present: painting classes. They knew I had always dreamed of studying art, but my parents didn’t see this as a suitable choice for me when I was a teenager. It remained a dream.

In 1998, I decided to study graphic design and ancient painting techniques at Rome’s Municipal Art School. In the meantime, I also took classes to learn how to write icons with some nuns in Calabria. However, since I am not very good at following rules, more than formal icons I make icon-inspired religious art. 

I am also interested in ecology. Since 2008, I have been collecting garbage on the beaches and making art pieces out of it to “create” awareness to be more respectful of our planet. Some of my works are here at The Lay Centre.


What is your feeling looking back? Do you have any special memory?

We were so pioneering in this field. When we started I don’t know if we really had in mind what we were going to become. We were always clear about being ecumenical and we grew in the interreligious dimension. We made many steps forward and this is the part I liked the most.

Talking about memories, I obviously have so many! Most of them relate to friendships and collaboration between scholars, not only of different cultures but also of different faith traditions.

This is what I find truly amazing about our centre. When our scholars go back home, the seed of dialogue has been planted and I always hope and pray that this seed will grow and flourish, bearing fruits.

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